The U.S. Senate has taken one step closer to a final vote on changing the government’s controversial program to freely tap and monitor citizens’ phones.
Senators voted 83-14 to end debate on the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring” (USA Freedom) Act. The bill will extend lapsed provisions of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act and aims to add transparency to the NSA’s activities surrounding wiretapping and data collection.
A final vote could happen as early as this afternoon.
The USA Freedom Act is the government’s best opportunity to continue extensive anti-terrorism monitoring at all, as three provisions of the old Patriot Act which allowed for persistent wiretaps, appropriation of business records, and monitoring of individuals not knowingly involved with terrorist groups expired yesterday. Having ended debate, the Senate will consider amendments to the existing bill before voting on whether or not to pass it. The bill still has to make it through the House before President Obama can sign or veto it.
It’s been hard to strike a balance between effective law enforcement and maintaining citizen privacy. This bill restricts the government’s ability to collect metadata but allows phone companies to do so with the NSA able to request access to that information. Apple head Tim Cook has pledged the company’s support of maintaining its customers’ privacy with end-to-end encryption in its messaging apps. Google has attempted to be as transparent as legally possible, but its systems are still very open to wiretapping.
We aren’t likely to ever find that balance, but the USA Freedom Act aims to make some progress.