OTI Welcomes Surveillance Reform Bill

Press Release
Shutterstock, Orhan Cam
Jan. 23, 2020

Today, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced the Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act (SAPRA). New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) welcomes the bill, which would provide several important reforms to U.S. surveillance laws and strengthen oversight of surveillance activities.

Congress must soon consider surveillance reform, as three provisions of the USA Patriot Act are set to expire on March 15, 2020, unless Congress acts to reauthorize them. These include Section 215, which allows the government to collect business records, such as financial or hotel records, as part of foreign intelligence investigations. The government has also relied on Section 215 to collect massive numbers of Americans’ phone records.

The Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act would significantly strengthen protections for privacy and civil liberties and require more robust oversight of intelligence surveillance.

Important reforms that are contained in the Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act include:

  • Revoking the authority that has permitted the government to collect hundreds of millions of phone records on an ongoing basis, which is a “necessary first step” for any meaningful surveillance reform effort. The bill would explicitly remove this Section 215 call detail records (CDR) program, which is privacy invasive and ineffective.
  • Prohibiting intelligence agencies from warrantless collection of geolocation information, internet browsing history, and any information that would require a warrant if it were collected by law enforcement agencies in the context of criminal investigations.
  • Strengthening the role of the “amicus” participants in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to present arguments regarding privacy and civil liberties and contest arguments made by the government.

However, Congress should take advantage of the upcoming reauthorization debate to enact further critical reforms to U.S. surveillance law. Key reforms that should be added to improve this bill or any other considered by Congress include:

  • Explicitly prohibiting targeting on the basis of race, religion, or other protected categories; and
  • Strengthening the prohibition against targeting on the basis of activities that are protected by the First Amendment.

The following quote can be attributed to Sharon Bradford Franklin, policy director at New America’s Open Technology Institute, and former executive director of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board:

“We welcome the Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act, which includes necessary reforms to surveillance law, such as finally ending the Section 215 CDR program that has permitted the government to collect hundreds of millions of phone records from Americans. Congress must take the opportunity presented by the expiring Patriot Act provisions to enact robust and meaningful reforms. The introduction of this bill is an important step in that direction.”

Related Topics
Government Surveillance Federal Surveillance Reform