Rein in U.S. access to metadata

Two years ago, Edward Snowden revealed to the world the breathtaking sweep of U.S. surveillance under the Patriot Act. That led to a federal appeals court ruling Thursday that the metadata collection of domestic telephone calls was illegal.

The need to find a better balance between individual rights and national security in the post-9/11 world now has new urgency and clarity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan unanimously ruled that the National Security Agency’s bulk accumulation of domestic phone calls by both the Bush and Obama administrations was “unprecedented and unwarranted.”

The American Civil Liberties Union learned from Snowden’s disclosures that the NSA had requested three months of records of calls from its national and New York offices. Days later, it challenged the law as both unconstitutional and an overstepping of Congress’ intent. The court made the narrower finding. It really didn’t need to do more because the controversial provision expires June 1.

In recent years, the nation has become more concerned about safeguarding the privacy of electronic data, ranging from the unrestrained classified operation exposed by Snowden to ordinary data breaches of major retail stores.

As a result, the House of Representatives is on track to approve the USA Freedom Act, which would curtail the power of the government to collect phone and Internet data of Americans. Records could be released by service providers only after a secret court finds that the government’s request is related to a specific and current investigation. The new law also would require that the court establish a panel of experts on technology, privacy and civil liberties.

Republican and Democratic senators are coming together to limit the Patriot Act, but there is a risk the effort will be undermined by 2016 presidential politics. GOP contenders Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz support bolstering privacy protections, while Sen. Marco Rubio opposes any change. The USA Freedom Act would bar bulk collection of the records but allow the government what it needs to conduct a specific investigation. It should become law.