Today, U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) continued their push to help Americans hold the government accountable by reintroducing a bill to increase transparency over government surveillance of American citizens. In addition, Sen. Franken announced that he plans to hold a hearing on his bill on Wednesday, Nov. 13, that will include participation from top administration officials, privacy experts, and a representative from Google.
The bipartisan Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013, which was first introduced in the summer and is being reintroduced today with new provisions, is the leading surveillance transparency bill in the Senate. The legislation would expand and improve ongoing government reporting about programs under the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that have recently been the subject of controversy. It would also provide Americans with the basic information they need to decide for themselves whether the government is giving due weight to both privacy and national security.
"The American public is naturally suspicious of executive power, and when things are done secretly, they tend to think that power is being abused," said Sen. Franken. "And right now, the public isn't getting the most basic information about what's going on with government surveillance programs. That needs to change. My bill would require the NSA to disclose to the public how many Americans are having their data collected, and how many are having their information looked at. This legislation goes a long way toward increasing transparency over these programs, and I look forward to holding a hearing on it in my subcommittee."
"The American people have a right to know what their government is doing. While I personally believe that the practice of bulk data collection should be eliminated, the government can at least take immediate steps to increase transparency in programs that have many Americans suspicious. In addition, private companies who have been served a subpoena should be able to share basic information with their customers. Protecting Americans' privacy is a bipartisan issue, which is why I am glad to be working with Senator Franken on this legislation," said Sen. Heller.
Right now, federal laws require the government to publicly disclose only a minimum amount of information about these programs. The Administration recently decided to supplement this reporting with additional voluntary and ad hoc disclosures. The companies involved in these programs are subject to strict gag orders. The bill would make it easier for companies to voluntarily disclose general information about the number of requests they receive and the number of their users affected.
Sen. Franken is the Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law and a long-time advocate of government surveillance transparency. In 2011 and 2012, he cosponsored legislation to increase transparency and oversight of government surveillance programs. When these measures did not pass, he voted against reauthorizing key provisions of both the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 would do the following:
Require the government to report annually on:
The number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders issued under key provisions of the PATRIOT Act and FISA;
The general categories of information collected;
The number of American citizens and permanent residents whose information was collected under the categories;
The number of American citizens and permanent residents whose information was actually reviewed by federal agents; and
The number of searches run on that data, including the number of searches run based on data from American citizens and permanent residents.
Allow companies to voluntarily disclose:
The number of orders they received and complied with;
The general categories of information they produced; and
The number of users whose information was produced in those categories.
Working with Sen. Heller, Sen. Franken has added two new provisions to strengthen the bill. These provisions will ensure that the bill's reporting requirements for the government cannot be used to justify the collection of any new personal information, or to justify any additional spending. You can read more about the Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 here and find bill text here. You can watch video of Sen. Franken discussing the need for increased transparency during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing from July here.
Sen. Franken's legislation responds to the concerns of over 60 leading Internet companies and advocacy groups who recently wrote the President and congressional leaders to demand more government disclosure on surveillance programs and the ability to release information on data the government is requesting.