The legal authority for US intelligence agencies’ to bulk collect Americans’ phone records has expired, after the Senate failed to pass legislation to extend the deal.
Key parts of the USA Patriot Act expired at midnight on Sunday 31 May after Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul blocked an extension of the programme during a Sunday session of the Senate.
However, the measure is temporary, as the Senate voted to advance the Freedom Act, a reformed piece of legislation, so a new form of data collection is likely to be approved in the coming days. It would shift the storage of phone records from the government to telephone companies.
President Barack Obama has pushed for the reform as a compromise addressing privacy concerns while preserving a tool to protect the country from terrorist threats, following the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden two years ago.
The Freedom Act had already been approved by the House of Representatives and backed by the White House, but the Senate rejected it last week by a vote of 57-42.
However, once it became obvious that the Patriot Act extension was going to expire, senators voted 77-17 to move forward with the Freedom Act.
The move angered many Republicans, who left the chamber en masse when Paul rose to speak, after having led a filibuster to stop the quick passage of the Freedom Act and blocking the extension of the Patriot Act.
After the deadline passed, he said: “Tonight begins the process of ending bulk collection. The bill will ultimately pass but we always look for silver linings. I think the bill may be replacing one form of bulk collection with another but the government after this bill passes will no longer collect your phone records.”
Senator John McCain said Paul was putting “a higher priority on his fundraising and his ambitions than on the security of the nation”.
The lapse of the deal means that security services have temporarily lost the power to bulk-collect Americans' phone records, to monitor 'lone wolf' terror suspects and to carry out 'roving wiretaps' of suspects.
But intelligence experts said a lapse of only a few days would have little immediate effect. The government is allowed to continue collecting information related to any foreign intelligence investigation that began before the deadline.