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Here’s Everything You Need To Know About The Patriot Act Changes

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suffered a serious embarrassment over the weekend when Congress let certain key provisions of the Patriot Act expire at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning. At the end of a chaotic weekend and with a new bill likely to pass in the next few days addressing the vast and complex federal surveillance infrastructure, it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening and what it means.

Here’s everything you need to know about the changes so far.

The Patriot Act was passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks to give the federal government the authority to track suspects and potential terrorists. The program quickly expanded and began taking in large amounts of information from American citizens, including huge amounts of telephone “metadata” from communications companies.

Now, three major parts of the law that required reauthorization before June 1 have expired:

  1. Section 215

The most consequential thing to happen was the expiration of the infamous Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision that allowed for bulk collection of private phone data from millions of Americans not suspected of any crime and the most decried section by privacy advocates. The provision allows the government to bulk collect “metadata,” which is what time a calls is made, how long the conversation lasted, and what phone numbers sent and received that call.

Section 215’s expiration only means that rather than collecting the data first-hand, the Agency will eventually have to go to the communications companies themselves in a more targeted manner.

  1. Lone Wolf

This provision allowed the federal government to track a “lone wolf,” someone who could be a terrorist threat but is not connected to any group like ISIS. The Feds say they’ve never had to use this provision and that it is not for use on U.S. citizens but still stress its importance.

  1. Roving Wiretap

This provision allows the NSA to track people on multiple electronic devices without getting individual approval for each one. The Feds claim this is rarely used and needs an approval from a federal court.

The three provisions expired after a chaotic weekend in Congress. The Senate voted Sunday to move forward with the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end the bulk collection. Paul was successful, however, in stalling a vote to extend those three measures of the Patriot Act by the Sunday deadline.

However, Charlie Savage of The New York Times points out, “All three of the expired laws contained a so-called grandfather clause that permits their authority to continue indefinitely for any investigation that had begun before June 1.”

What Happens Next?

The Senate is expected to pass the USA Freedom Act, a bill intended to curb some of the more invasive domestic surveillance practices. Just exactly how strong the reforms in the bill will be and what exactly they will look like is the main issue at hand now, especially since McConnell introduced amendments Sunday that would weaken privacy reforms and appeal to hawkish members.

McConnell introduced amendments to the bill that could slow the passage process, including two that would be unpopular with privacy advocates. The two in question allow the NSA twice as long, from six months to a full year, to close down the bulk phone record collection program. The other would gut the bill’s language to make important opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court available to the public.

The USA Freedom Act could get approval as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday. The House will then have to reconcile with any Senate changes.

It seems the votes for a compromised version of the USA Freedom Act will not be impossible to get. It’s just that Paul’s disrupting and Congress’ disorganization and procrastination made this debate last long enough for the provisions to expire. The expiration will surely put a fire under members to get the USA Freedom Act Passed as soon as possible.

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