Senator pushes new version of bill to limit NSA phone records collection

Leahy reintroduces the USA Freedom Act in an effort to strengthen the bill that passed the House

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy on Tuesday introduced a new version of a bill to rein in the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. phone records in an effort to strengthen legislation that passed the House of Representatives this year.

The new version of Leahy's USA Freedom Act  would ban bulk collection of U.S phone records by the NSA and would prohibit the agency from collecting all the information from a single telecom carrier or from a broad geographic region such as a city or zip code.

Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, introduced the new version of the bill after the House passed a weakened version of the bill in May. The House version of the bill would allow the NSA to continue collect telephone and other records from large groups of people, critics said.

Leahy's new version would require the NSA to use specific selection terms to target its telephone records collection.

The bill would also require the government to issue reports on the number of people targeted in surveillance programs. It would give communications providers options on how to report on the number of surveillance requests they receive, and it would require the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to appoint a panel of special advocates to argue in support of individual privacy and civil liberties during court consideration of surveillance requests.

"If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act 13 years ago," Leahy said in a floor statement. "This is an historic opportunity, and I am grateful that the bill has the support of the administration, a wide range of privacy and civil liberties groups, and the technology industry."

With Congress leaving for its August break in a few days, it's unclear whether Leahy's bill will pass before election season this fall makes all legislation difficult to move forward.

The NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records came to light about a year ago, from leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Several lawmakers have pushed since then to limit the NSA's collection of U.S. phone records.

Several tech trade group and digital rights groups voiced support for the Leahy bill.

The Leahy bill is "a vast improvement over the final House bill," said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "The Senate USA Freedom Act narrows key loopholes on bulk data collection and offers greater transparency, which is essential for citizens in a free democracy," he added in a statement.

The new Senate bill does not close the so-called back-door loophole allowing the NSA to search its databases for information about U.S. residents, said representatives of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

However, the Senate bill is a stronger bill for privacy than the House version, said Kevin Bankston, OTI's policy director. The new bill "would go a long way toward stemming the costs of the NSA's spying programs and restoring trust in the American Internet industry, by prohibiting bulk records collection and providing substantially more transparency around the NSA's surveillance programs," he said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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