Government Spy Programs on US Citizens Due to Expire

With Key Parts of Patriot Act Due to Expire in June, Congress Has to Decide What to Do About NSA Surveillance Programs

Source: Wall Street Journal (01/02/2015)

Ed_SnowdenWASHINGTON—A debate over the reach of U.S. surveillance networks heads unresolved into 2015, after calls for drastic spying limits were blunted by the recent surge in global extremism, but a statutory deadline looms at midyear.

Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire in June after attempts to modify the Sept. 11-era national security law were stymied in the Senate in 2014. Now, the incoming Republican-dominated Congress faces a variety of tensions as it works to sort out the future of U.S. surveillance programs.

Civil-liberties advocates and many lawmakers want stricter protocols for gathering information—in particular, limits on the mass collection of phone records by the National Security Agency—while opponents of such measures cite security threats that they maintain warrant the continuation of the bulk accumulation of personal data.

At the same time, businesses scarred by their compliance with government surveillance programs have grown more vocal in advocating greater oversight and transparency, and have worked to secure their systems against government encroachment. They face off with warnings from the FBI and other agencies about the public-safety dangers of limited law-enforcement access to public phone and Internet records.

In the midst of the debate, important parts of the Patriot Act, including Section 215, which authorizes phone-records collection, are due to expire, thrusting a difficult choice on lawmakers and the Obama administration: reauthorize the law in some form or risk losing the legal basis for key intelligence programs.

“The House is not going to pass a straight reauthorization, and I don’t think President Obama would support one,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, and a supporter of privacy protections. “Something has to happen and there has to be some kind of reform, and the question is: What does it look like?”

Ever since revelations about government surveillance by former NSA contractorEdward Snowden in June 2013, a number of lawmakers in both parties have called for ending the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records and revamping other surveillance activities. But Senate Republicans blocked a bill in November to alter existing programs because they thought it went too far and would have hindered efforts to combat extremism.

The legislation was backed by a broad and unusual coalition, including the White House, technology companies, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. Supporters of restructuring existing programs say there is room for compromise in 2015.

“Those of us who believe we should reform our surveillance authorities and those who prefer the status quo have a shared interest in negotiating a way forward that preserves our ability to protect the nation from attack while protecting privacy and civil liberties interests,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Businesses are increasingly a part of the debate. Apple Inc., Google Inc. and other technology companies put new encryption technology in place this year to make their devices and services more secure and meet customer demands to protect personal information. Concerns that tech companies too willingly turn over data to the U.S. government cost them business overseas, they say.

“If you’re a European right now, you’re less likely to trust an American firm to retain your data,” Eric Schmidt , Google’s chairman, said at a recent Cato Institute conference in Washington.

The tension between personal privacy and national security in next year’s Congress will extend to areas beyond the looming deadline for the Patriot Act, as companies and the government seek to shore up cyberdefenses.

High-profile hacks on Sony Corp. ’s movie and TV studio arm and others this past year, including Home Depot Inc., likely will renew a push for legislation to enable information-sharing about malicious malware and cyberthreats between intelligence agencies and the private sector, after such an effort failed in 2014. Absent such a measure, companies fear they could be subject to lawsuits from making such disclosures.

Opponents of the bill worry it would grant the NSA greater access to personal information. Supporters, including intelligence officials, industry groups and many lawmakers, say computer networks will remain at risk until the public and private sector can readily share such information. With an information-sharing law “you could stop a lot of problems,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.