US senator seeks strong curbs on NSA metadata collection

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US senator seeks strong curbs on NSA metadata collection
Protesters holding masks of Edward Snowden during an anti-surveillance demonstration in Berlin, Germany, in May this year. Photo: Tobias Schwarz

New bill introduced in US Senate welcomed by privacy advocates.

A new Senate proposal to curb the government's bulk collection of Americans' telephone records and increase transparency about the program has White House backing, and may get more traction with critics who have dismissed other bills as too weak.

Democrat senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the legislation in the United States upper house yesterday.

Because it does more to clamp down on the data collection exposed last year by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, Leahy's bill was expected to be more attractive to privacy advocates than a bill passed by the US House of Representatives in May.

Leahy's bill was welcomed by the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT) lobby group, which said it addresses many of the issues identified in the previous version of the proposed USA Freedom Act that was introduced in Congress.

CDT chief executive Nuala O'Connor welcomed the senate version of the USA Freedom Act, saying it would be a significant step forward in protecting Americans from unnecessary and intrusive NSA surveillance.

“This legislation is a major improvement over the version that passed the House in June. The bill would end bulk collection and enact other important reforms, while also providing government with the necessary flexibility to protect national security," O'Connor said.

The House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act in May, but some privacy advocates and technology companies withdrew support because they wanted more extensive reforms.

Many American technology companies have also been clamouring for changes after seeing their international business suffer as foreign governments worry they might collect data and hand it over to US spy agencies.

The White House has been working closely with lawmakers, privacy experts and technology companies to secure Senate passage of what it considers critical legislation, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said.

"Chairman Leahy has done remarkable work reflecting the equities of intelligence professionals while crafting privacy enhancements, and these efforts have yielded significant progress on issues vital to those stakeholders," Price said in an email on Monday. 

Both the House and Senate measures would keep information out of National Security Agency computers, but the Senate bill would limit how much of the data the spy agency could seek.

A privacy advocate who would represent the public before the court that oversees the data collection program would also be appointed under senatory Leahy's proposed law.

The NSA claimed it had legal authority to collect and hold for five years metadata for all telephone calls inside the United States.

Nevertheless, several courts have declared the NSA metadata collection program illegal, and Snowden's revelations caused a political uproar.

President Barack Obama asked Congress in January to rein in the bulk collection and storage of records of millions of US domestic telephone calls.

The bill is not expected to come up for a vote in the Senate before Congress leaves for a five-week break on August 1 however, which would prevent enactment before the northern hemisphere autumn.

Additional reporting by Juha Saarinen

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