Senators demand information on secret data collection program

“These records can reveal personal relationships, family medical issues, political and religious affiliations, and a variety of other private personal information,” the senators wrote. “This is particularly true if these records are collected in a manner that includes cell phone location data, effectively turning Americans’ cell phones into tracking devices.”

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News broke earlier this month that the National Security Agency (NSA) had used statutes under the Patriot Act to attain the phone records and emails of people within the United States. The senators said because the administration is keeping the official interpretation of the law secret, it’s preventing the public from knowing what power the government has. 

The senators also expressed concern over the Patriot Act’s “business records” authority, which could be used to give the government access to private financial, medical, consumer and firearm sales records.

“Earlier this month, the executive branch acknowledged for the first time that the ‘business records’ provision of the USA PATRIOT Act has been secretly reinterpreted to allow the government to collect the private records of large numbers of ordinary Americans,” the letter stated. “These other types of bulk collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and liberties as well.”

Clapper was asked to respond to several questions about the program, including whether NSA has used surveillance programs to obtain personal data on Americans beyond their phone records. He was also asked to provide an example of when this surveillance program has thwarted a terrorist attack in order to justify its continued use.

Congress passed the Patriot Act shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, because it was seen as necessary to prevent another attack. Some lawmakers have said administrations have overstepped their authority and are now violating the civil liberties 

In addition to Wyden, the letter was signed by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).