Of all of Edward Snowden’s revelations about electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency, the most unsettling was that the government was accumulating vast numbers of records about the telephone calls of American citizens. In May, the House approved a bill that would end the bulk collection of so-called telephone metadata, but time is running out for the Senate to approve a similar — and we hope stronger — version of the legislation.
After Snowden revealed that the government was vacuuming up telephone metadata — information about the source, destination and duration of phone calls — President Barack Obama was initially nonchalant, assuring the American people that there was no problem because “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”
But the public soon realized that the government possessed information that could reveal a host of details about their daily lives. Eventually, Obama endorsed the recommendation of an advisory review group that the government stop collecting metadata. Instead, such data would remain with telephone companies and be “queried” by the government only with a court order. A query is a search in which a telephone number believed to be associated with a terrorist can be matched to a call in the database.
Acting on his own, Obama has implemented part of that recommendation by agreeing to obtain court approval for searches of telephone records. The so-called USA Freedom Act passed by the House would put into effect the other half of the review group’s recommendation by ending the bulk collection and storage of phone records by the government. But last-minute alterations in the House bill, urged by the administration, expanded the definition of the terms the NSA could use in searches of telephone and other records in a way that civil libertarians worried might have allowed the government to circumvent the ban on bulk collection of phone records.
In negotiating with senators on their version of the legislation, the administration has addressed that concern. The intelligence community has agreed to a stricter definition of the search terms. Such an agreement could clear the way for action by the Senate before it begins its August recess and the president’s signature on a final bill before the end of the year.
Ending bulk collection of telephone records and writing judicial review into the law wouldn’t address all the threats to Americans’ privacy revealed by Snowden. Congress also must establish new safeguards for information about Americans “incidentally” collected in electronic surveillance of foreigners living abroad. But it would be an important first step in reestablishing an appropriate and overdue balance between national security and personal privacy.