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President urges Senate to act on Section 215 question

With Section 215 of the Patriot Act meeting its demise on June 1, President Obama calls for the Senate to get busy.

President Barack Obama told reporters at a press conference yesterday the Senate "left town without finishing necessary work" when it failed to pass the USA Freedom Act. The House of Representatives previously passed the bill, which amends and extends key provisions of the Patriot Act due to expire on June 1.

Short of new legislation, the Section 215 authorization for the collection of telephone metadata will sunset. Since this comes on the heels of a Second Circuit Court unanimous ruling that Section 215 is illegal, some have argued that this is as it should be -- or, at the very least, that this is an opportunity for Congress to rewrite the law in a way that passes Constitutional muster.

Congressional opinions, however, are split over whether the Patriot Act should simply be reauthorized or whether the new USA Freedom Act -- which significantly curtails bulk data collection -- should be passed.

While the House of Representatives approved the new legislation, many observers think it's unlikely the bill will pass before Section 215 expires. The website Politico's coverage said, "With the Senate not slated to return to Washington until just hours before that deadline, opponents like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) showing no signs of budging, and the House so far unwilling to bail out the upper chamber, the prospects for an eleventh-hour breakthrough look slim."

The President, however, called on the Senate to "work through the recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done."

The mass surveillance program the Obama administration has claimed is authorized under Section 215 came to widespread public attention in the first Snowden revelation nearly two years ago. A subsequent investigation from the government-appointed independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded last year that the program "bears almost no resemblance" to what was authorized in Section 215 and that "the Section 215 program has shown minimal value in safeguarding the nation from terrorism. Based on the information provided to the Board, including classified briefings and documentation, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation."

The National Security Agency, leaked documents revealed, collected telephone records of every phone call made on a landline in the United States. Subsequently, though, there have been strong indications that the FBI relies on Section 215 for investigations it uses in cyberspace (as opposed to telephone networks).

The cyberspace implications of Section 215 reauthorization could include economic ramifications, according to Yorgen Edholm, CEO of cloud file synchronization vendor Accellion, Inc.

"Renewal of the Patriot Act is more than just a privacy issue; it also has economic implications," Edholm said. "The law was written during the early stages of the cloud revolution, which provides some excuse for why legislators may not have been fully aware of the implications the law had on data sovereignty. These concerns have elevated the legislation from a national issue to a global problem, with foreign businesses weighing the potential benefits of working with US cloud service providers, against the threat of U.S. government visibility into stored data."

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