The fight to end overbroad surveillance took place in a variety of battlefields in 2014, including Congress. Some of the legislation Congress considered represented real steps towards curtailing the NSA’s overbroad authority, while some bills were fake fixes. And the NSA’s defenders fought real change at every step of the way.
We supported the original USA Freedom Act, introduced in October of 2013, as a floor for reform, rather than our ultimate goal. But in May 2014, when the House of Representatives finally passed USA Freedom, it had been gutted so severely during the House amendment process that EFF could not support it. We didn't think it would end bulk collection of telephone records—and might even codify bad interpretations of the law that the NSA has used to justify expansive collection under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.
That’s why we were encouraged to see Senator Leahy introduce the USA Freedom Act of 2014 in July. It was very different from the House version, though not as strong as the original USA Freedom. After thoroughly weighing its strengths and weaknesses, we decided to support it. Our bottom line was that the legislation would end bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215, improve transparency, and put a special advocate in the FISA Court—something we’ll never be able to get through our litigation. But in the lame duck session the Senate narrowly voted against even allowing a vote on the Leahy bill.
The news wasn’t all bad, however. In June, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly (293-123) to approve an amendment to the 2015 Department of Defense appropriations bill designed to cut funding for NSA backdoors. Unfortunately, the amendment was ultimately stripped from the bill last minute. It would have prohibited use of funds from the bill for either searching the communications of Americans collected under Section 702 without a warrant or trying to engineer backdoors into products or services. Although the amendment didn’t survive, the vote itself makes it clear that lawmakers recognize the need for reform—and the language has been introduced as a standalone bill, the Secure Data Act of 2014 [pdf].
We also saw some fake fixes to NSA spying, supported by the NSA’s biggest defenders, die quiet deaths in Congress. The leaders of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence introduced a bill that would have created an entirely new spying authority for the NSA. And Senator Feinstein’s FISA Improvements Act would’ve codified some of the NSA’s worst practices, but it never made it to the Senate floor.
Of course, no mention of 2014 would be complete without noting that, together with our friends Greenpeace and the Tenth Amendment Center, EFF launched an airship over the NSA’s Utah data center. The airship carried the message “NSA Illegal Spying Below" along with a link steering people to our web site, StandAgainstSpying.org, which graded senators on their voting record on surveillance.
What’s in Store
2014 had its ups and downs, but we’re excited about fighting mass spying in 2015. That’s why we’re starting the year off strong with a newly launched petition to President Obama telling him to stop mass spying under Executive Order 12333. The order, signed by President Reagan, governs the conduct of U.S. surveillance overseas. It has been used to justify incredibly invasive surveillance of non-U.S. persons. And it matters within the U.S. too—former State Department official John Napier Tye called it a legal loophole that could allow surveillance of Americans simply because their communications don’t stay entirely within the United States.
And in 2015, some sections of the PATRIOT Act, including Section 215 (which the NSA has used to justify bulk collection of telephone records) will expire. Congress will have to reauthorize these sections—a big opportunity to force every lawmaker to show us where they stand when it comes to spying.
What will happen next? Stay tuned!
This article is part of our Year In Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2014. Like what you're reading? EFF is a member-supported nonprofit, powered by donations from individuals around the world. Join us today and defend free speech, privacy, and innovation.