Is Section 215 About to Die?

The Senate failed to pass anything regarding the sunsetting of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision that has been used to justify mass data collection on all Americans, and now it’s looking like it’s going to quietly die at the end of the month. My old colleague Spencer Ackerman reports:

Even as the Senate remains at an impasse over the future of US domestic surveillance powers, the National Security Agency will be legally unable to collect US phone records in bulk by the time Congress returns from its Memorial Day vacation.

The administration, as suggested in a memo it sent Congress on Wednesday, declined to ask a secret surveillance court for another 90-day extension of the order necessary to collect US phone metadata in bulk. The filing deadline was Friday, hours before the Senate failed to come to terms on a bill that would have formally repealed the NSA domestic surveillance program.

“We did not file an application for reauthorization,” an administration official confirmed to the Guardian on Saturday.

The administration decision ensures that beginning at 5pm ET on 1 June, for the first time since October 2001 the NSA will no longer collect en masse Americans’ phone records…

A chaotic early morning on Saturday in the Senate ended with the procedural defeat of the USA Freedom Act, which would have banned the NSA bulk collection program while renewing an expiring Patriot Act provision allowing FBI access to business records and a vast amount of US communications metadata.

But McConnell, who is seeking to retain all current domestic surveillance powers, also failed to convince the Senate to pass a temporary extension of the provision, known as Section 215, which shuts down at midnight on 31 May. McConnell’s alternative would retain all existing FBI under Section 215 as well as the NSA bulk phone records collection.

If they do manage to pass a short-term emergency extension, it isn’t clear that the House would approve of it at all. The House overwhelmingly voted for the USA Freedom Act a week or so ago, with about equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats supporting it — and a sizable number of those who voted against it doing so because it didn’t go far enough in restricting the NSA’s data mining operations. The Obama administration has already begun to take the computers running that data mining program offline, so it will be shut down at least for a time.

I suspect what will happen is that the Senate will eventually capitulate to the USA Freedom Act because the House vote was so overwhelming. And while that bill is far from perfect, it would be the first time that Congress has placed more than token restrictions on NSA surveillance since 9/11. It’s a step, however small, in the right direction.

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  • Deacon Duncan

    The question is: will the NSA really stop doing it, or just stop acknowledging that they’re doing it?

  • NSA agent: “OK, I am turning off the data mining equipment now…click…I totally just turned it off. What? No, I did not just SAY the word ‘click’ and pantomime flicking a switch. It is totally off. Trust me. No you cannot have a look. Go away.”

  • llewelly


  • Due to a typo in the Patriot Act, it turns out the NSA will continue its data mining program, while NASA will have to ends its.

  • So if the law that the NSA wilfully misinterpreted to let them do something they weren’t authorized to do goes away, then they’ll stop doing the thing they weren’t supposed to be doing?

  • gronank

    “Patriot Act”, “Freedom Act”, et.c.

    Is there some sort of law in the US to prevent laws to have descriptive names? Or are they simply named that way to dissuade anyone from actually reading them.

    What’s next? the Inconspicuous Act?

  • garnetstar

    Why not end all “legal” surveillance of all American’s data: it’s politically popular and they’ll just go back to doing it illegally, as was the time-honored procedure. Instead of the NSA doing surveillance, it’ll go back to the CIA and FBI or some other dark agency.

    If you want to communicate with someone privately, the two of you should get into a rowboat and go out to the middle of a large lake and whisper closely into each other ears (to shield your mouth movements from lip-readers who will review the video surveillance obtained by helicopters or satellites.)

  • Die Anyway

    > “Is section 215 about to die?”

    Don’t worry, the government will keep it on life support until it recovers.

  • DonDueed

    gronank, the USA PATRIOT Act is actually an acronym. The actual name of the law is: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”.

    This is not a joke.

    It just happened to work out to be actual words, honest. (This part is a joke.)