Last week, the House of Representatives passed the bill called The USA Freedom Act, 303 votes to 121. Following a series of amendments, the bill as it passed in the end contained much weaker reforms than even the very modest ones it originally proposed. The Chair of the Judiciary Committee’s manager’s amendment removed two-thirds of its substantive reforms; the Chair of the Intelligence Committee and the White House worked hard to remove as much as possible of what remained, leaving a shell that will still permit mass surveillance.
The Fourth Amendment is clear: Mass surveillance is unconstitutional. A government search is unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional, if it is not authorized beforehand by a warrant issued by a judge, on the basis of “probable cause” of involvement in an actual crime, supported by an “oath or affirmation, and particularly describing” the “persons or things to be seized.”
That’s what ought to happen. This bill, on the other hand, would allow government searches of millions of innocent people’s data and movements, not based on probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of their personal involvement in a crime, but simply on any “selection term” vaguely associated with a target of surveillance. The “selection term” could be as broad as the government likes, covering, for example, everyone born in Hawaii, or everyone with the middle name Hussein. The argument for this “reform” that supporters are touting is that this is better than the current government practice of collecting everything with no selection term at all. While that’s true, it misses the larger point. The standard is individualized probable cause warrants, not “whatever is most convenient for the NSA.” A standard that can be redefined at will is marginally – if at all – better than having none.