Nov. 14, 2014, 4:45 p.m.

Zombie USA FREEDOM Act Is Back, May Eat Our Brains

In a last-ditch post-midterm Hail Mary, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to get just one more thing done before handing over to the Republicans. That thing, apparently – the single thing he thinks we as Americans most need – is a renewal of the PATRIOT Act provision allowing mass phone data collection, bound up in the watered-down USA FREEDOM Act. The Act promises to allow legislators to say that they have dealt with the problem of mass government surveillance. In truth, it doesn't even come close, and may well do harm.

The key sticking point – and the reason why, among others, Sen. Rand Paul has come out against passing USA FREEDOM in the lame-duck session – is that it renews for two years Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which is one of the three main legal underpinnings for mass government surveillance. (It also renews Section 206, the Fourth Amendment-abusing “roving wiretaps” provision, which allows the government to wiretap multiple devices of a target who is not yet identified.) USA FREEDOM would constrain mass government surveillance of Americans, under this section of law, such that the US government would no longer hold the phone metadata of all Americans. Instead, phone companies would hold it, but would be required to hand it over to the government in a form that would permit mass analysis. It’s hard to say that that’s any better. Senator Leary's office, and civil liberties groups like EFF and ACLU, have made strenuous efforts to negotiate the strongest reforms that the White House will accept. As it turns out, what the White House will accept falls far short and comes at too high a price. Restore the Fourth, joined by the Campaign for Liberty and other civil liberties groups, are therefore opposing its passage.

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