You know me: I never get political, but when it comes to Americans' privacy, I always have something to say.
The Patriot Act passed in the wake of the horrifying terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then it's become one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed in the last 20 years. I'm not going to comment on that.
I do want to talk about the new USA Freedom Act that prohibits the bulk collection of phone metadata.
That's right, folks. The House voted to change the Patriot Act to outlaw one of the most serious government oversteps into our privacy in history. It's not a law yet. It still has to pass through the Senate, then get a signature from the President. But this is a crucial first step. It passed overwhelmingly, and with bipartisan support, 338-88. That puts tremendous pressure on the Senate and the President to get it done.
It won't be easy though. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is on record as opposing the USA Freedom Act, and other members of both parties in the Senate believe that bulk phone records collection is needed to keep us safe. However, some experts believe there are enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate and avoid filibusters.
Even if the bill does get passed, it won't stop your metadata from being stored for a period of between 18 months and five years. Your phone company or a private third party would still be required to save those records in case the NSA, CIA or FBI requests them with approval from the FISA courts. But the USA Freedom Act also limits the power of the President, putting an end to the practice of using National Security Letters.
Essentially, it makes it more difficult for the government to access your phone records, and it stops the NSA from storing them itself.
Just to be clear, the issue at the heart of this controversy is the bulk collection of phone metadata. That's a mouthful! What it doesn't mean is that there's somebody listening to your calls.
Phone metadata is essentially just your number, the number you called and the date and time you were on the phone with them. And we're also not talking about domestic calls, we're talking about international calls. It might not seem like a lot of data, but the NSA can actually figure out a fair amount of information from these records. Whether it's very effective at preventing attacks is another debate.
The "bulk" part simply means the phone company collects and stores ALL of them, so the government can look up the information when it wants to.
As for me, I'm on record as being opposed to the government's collection and storage of metadata, so any legislation that limits its power to do that is a step in the right direction. But what do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.