Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced legislation on Tuesday to ban the U.S. government’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and Internet data and narrow how much information it can seek in any particular search.
The bill, which has White House backing, goes further than a version passed in May by the U.S. House of Representatives in reducing bulk collection and may be more acceptable to critics who have dismissed other versions as too weak.
Revelations last year by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden prompted President Barack Obama to ask Congress in January to rein in the bulk collection and storage of records of millions of U.S. domestic telephone calls.
Many American technology companies also have been clamoring for changes after seeing their international business suffer as foreign governments worry they might collect data and hand it over to U.S. spy agencies.
“If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago,” said Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor.
Congress leaves for a five-week break on Friday, and it was unclear if lawmakers would take on the legislation before November elections.
Leahy proposed greater limits on the terms that analysts use to search databases held by phone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc or AT&T Inc.
The bill, called the USA Freedom Act, would prohibit the government from collecting all information from a particular service provider or a broad geographic area, such as a city or area code, according to a release from Leahy’s office.
It would expand government and company reporting to the public and reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews NSA intelligence activities.
Both House and Senate measures would keep information out of NSA computers, but the Senate bill would impose stricter limits on how much data the spy agency could seek.
Leahy’s measure “is an improvement on the House-passed version at every step,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington.
Many other civil liberties groups and privacy advocates endorsed the legislation while calling for additional reforms.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have miles left to go,” said Laura W. Murphy, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Leahy acknowledged there was more work to be done, saying “I’d like to get most of what we need, then work on the rest.”
The Senate bill would end the bulk collection authorized by Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which was enacted during the George W. Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
It instead would authorize searches for telephone call records “two hops” from a search term, with a hop indicating connections between people suspected of links to foreign terrorism.
The NSA has had legal authority to collect and hold for five years metadata for all telephone calls inside the United States. Telephone metadata documents the numbers involved, when the calls were made and how long they lasted, but not their content.
Leahy’s bill would require the government to report the number of individuals, including Americans, whose information has been collected. It gives private companies four options to report on the number of government requests they get.
The bill would require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to appoint legal advocates to address privacy and civil liberties issues.
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price praised Leahy on Monday for having done “remarkable work” balancing security and privacy concerns in the bill.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Jonathan Oatis)
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