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New bill seeks to outlaw bulk surveillance, shine light on secret FISA court system

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senators 640
senators 640

Following public outcry about the US government's controversial domestic surveillance programs, members of Congress have rushed to propose solutions. Now, four senators have combined a number of those ideas into a single piece of proposed legislation that would prohibit several questionable practices that US government agencies use, including the bulk collection of US communications without a warrant. The bill would also notably appoint an independent "constitutional advocate," whose job would be to attend the secret FISA court and challenge the government when it seeks to spy in ways that might interfere with the US constitution.

The bill is called the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, and while we don't yet have the full text of the document in hand, its four sponsors Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Udall (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) offered this summary (PDF) and also held a press conference this morning to discuss the legislation.

Closing the loopholes, opening the courts

In addition to prohibiting bulk data collection, the senators claim the Act would specifically address a number of loopholes in FISA Section 702 — the one which the government claims authorizes its data collection under PRISM — which theoretically allow agencies like the NSA and FBI to indirectly obtain the communications of American citizens. The bill would also permit companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft to disclose more information about their cooperation with surveillance efforts, something many such companies have been asking for, declassify "significant" FISA court opinions, and allow American citizens to openly challenge the constitutionality of such surveillance in the US court system.

While it's impossible to say if the bill can make it to law at this early stage, there's hope that it could. An earlier attempt to defund Section 215 of the Patriot Act was narrowly defeated 205 to 217 in the US House of Representatives a few months ago, and since then the revelations about questionable government surveillance haven't stopped. "The disclosures over the last 100 days have caused a sea change in the way the public views the surveillance system," Senator Wyden told reporters.