After all the outrage and controversy since Edward Snowden made the program known to the world, the bulk collection of US phone records will cease as of 5pm (East Coast) on June 1st. After the NSA did not petition the secretive FISA Court for a 90-day extension, the nearly 14-year run of the hugely contentious metadata dragnet has finally met its demise.
“We did not file an application for reauthorization,” an NSA official told The Guardian.
Use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify bulk data collection was deemed illegal by a federal appeals court on May 7, much to the delight of civil rights advocates and others who were alarmed to discover such an enormously invasive governmental overreach. No injunction was ordered with that ruling since the court felt its decision would ostensibly lead to sunsetting the provision on June 1st.
The Obama Administration announced that it would order the NSA to wind down its spy programs which target Americans if Congress did not extend section 2015 of the Patriot Act by May 22nd. Congress didn’t extend it thanks to an hours-long bipartisan filibuster, so the program began shutting down last week.
After a great deal of wrangling on the Senate floor on Saturday, the USA Freedom Act was defeated after failing to garner enough support. Though marketed to the public as a way to halt the NSA’s spying, the act would permit new bulk data collection on millions of Americans. It would also renew Patriot Act provisions that allow the FBI to access business records.
Once the Freedom Act was voted down, Sen Mitch McConnell scrambled to pass a temporary renewal of the Patriot Act’s Section 215 with aspirations to compromise on the bill when Congress returns in June. His attempts were thwarted. McConnell is a diehard proponent of an extensive surveillance program, calling this “a high-threat period” for domestic spying.
Though the NSA’s role as a data collector for Americans has now come to an end, the Freedom Act — if passed — would transfer that duty to phone companies. The government would then have access to the information. Included in the legislation, is a transition period of at least six months for developing the necessary technology to carry out the program.
Sen Rand Paul, who wants the ability to constrain parts of the act through amendment, expressed concerns about its premise:
This is […] about whether or not a warrant with a single name of a single company can be used to collect all the records. All of the phone records of all of the people in our country with a single warrant. Our forefathers would be aghast.
The Senate reconvenes on May 31st to attempt an agreement about the bill although the chances that it will occur are remote.
“For the first time, a majority of senators took a stand against simply rubber-stamping provisions of the Patriot Act that have been used to spy on Americans. It’s disappointing that the Senate couldn’t coalesce around far-reaching reform, but in its absence the Senate should simply let the expiring provisions sunset,” said Michael Macleod-Ball from the ACLU’s Washington office.
Fittingly, the NSA’s notorious surveillance dragnet ended almost as surreptitiously as it began.