Activist groups push House Judiciary leaders to end mass phone data collection

Activist groups push House Judiciary leaders to end mass phone data collection
© Greg Nash

A coalition of 37 activist groups is pushing the leaders of the House Judiciary Committee to end the government's mass phone data collection program, arguing it poses insurmountable threats to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of people.

The letter comes as Congress braces for a battle over the reauthorization of the USA Freedom Act, which is set to expire later this year and gives the government a broad range of surveillance authorities.

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The prominent privacy and civil rights organizations made clear they will not support any bill that reauthorizes the call records program and that does not offer "meaningful surveillance reforms."

Sean Vitka, policy counsel with civil liberties group Demand Progress, told The Hill he hopes the letter will "embolden people who are rightfully concerned about the possible restart of a program that spies on ... millions of innocent people."

He said the groups hope to "make sure people on the Hill know civil society is there and we can’t accept any reauthorization" of the call records program.

So far, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerDem committee chairs blast Trump G-7 announcement Top Democrat holds moment of silence for Cummings at hearing Barr to speak at Notre Dame law school on Friday MORE (D-N.Y.) has not weighed in publicly about where he stands on the USA Freedom Act or the call records program, referred to as Section 215.

"Given the CDR program’s extraordinary breadth, its lack of demonstrated efficacy, and the government’s failure to lawfully implement it, repealing the CDR program is a necessary first step, although not sufficient without other major reforms," the groups wrote, referring to call detail records (CDR).

Privacy activists have long argued that elements of the USA Freedom Act — which enables the CDR program — should not be reauthorized, including the Section 215 authorities. They say the program has not effectively stopped any terrorist attacks and encroaches on the personal lives of Americans.

The call records program has been wracked with technical difficulties for years, the National Security Agency (NSA) has revealed. In June, the NSA announced that it had purged hundreds of millions of records after discovering the data had been “contaminated” by records it was not supposed to receive.

And documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union in June showed the NSA improperly collected records on American phone calls and texts last year.

While some lawmakers have already called for the sunset of Section 215 authorities, many of the key players in the congressional debate have not weighed in yet. The White House and the NSA have not publicly made any demands of Congress.

The end to the call records program is only one of the reforms privacy hawks will be pushing for. They are also likely to call to strengthen First Amendment protections within the USA Freedom Act, more transparency about how much information the NSA collects, and an audit into whether the legislation disproportionately impacts Muslim Americans.

Spokespeople for Nadler and House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets Graham huddles with House Republicans on impeachment strategy MORE (R-Ga.) did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment.