Wyden introduces the SPOT Act to give federal privacy board ‘teeth’

The federal government does, in fact, have an agency devoted to advising the president about the civil liberties implications of government surveillance. It’s called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), and for the most part, it’s been a toothless, face-saving organization. Now, a group of members from both chambers of Congress wants to give the PCLOB the resources and authority to really do its job.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-O.R.) announced the Strengthening Privacy, Oversight, and Transparency (SPOT) Act in a press release on Tuesday afternoon. If passed by Congress and signed into law, SPOT would give the PCLOB “a watchdog role over surveillance conducted for purposes beyond counterterrorism.”

The five-member PCLOB began as a recommendation in the 9/11 Commission Report. Its members are appointed by the president to staggered six-year terms. The board has been mostly silent on privacy issues since its creation. In January, following months of disclosures about the national security state and the U.S. surveillance apparatus, the board recommended that the government end the bulk data collection program that it operated under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

“We do not believe that the process surrounding the application of Section 215 to bulk collection comported with the kind of public debate that best serves the development of policy affecting the rights of Americans,” the PCLOB’s report said.

Because the board only serves in an advisory capacity, it does not have the power to compel any reforms of government surveillance practices.

In his press release, Wyden said that the SPOT Act “gives the board the teeth it needs to fulfill its mandate of ensuring the government’s efforts to protect citizens at home and abroad also protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.”

Wyden is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, while Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-H.I.) will introduce it in the House. The two bills’ co-sponsors are Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Troy Gowdy (R-S.C.), respectively.

“I commend my friend Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for her work on this bill and am happy to support the effort to equip the PCLOB to actually do its job,” said Gowdy, the second-term Tea Party congressman from South Carolina’s 4th congressional district.

Udall, who chairs the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which funds the PCLOB, welcomed Wyden’s attempt to improve the way the agency functioned.

“Expanding the board’s jurisdiction to include all foreign intelligence activities will help further protect against the government’s unacceptable infringement on Americans’ privacy rights,” Udall said in the press release.

Civil liberties groups cheered the Wyden initiative. “It’s a very good step forward and is much needed,” Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Daily Dot. “The changes help the PCLOB fulfill its intended role as an overseer, active interlocutor, and policy maker regarding privacy and civil liberties for surveillance and other counterrorism activities in the White House.”

Jaycox says that the PCLOB must look at U.S. surveillance programs “holistically” to police them properly, a key factor included in the SPOT Act.

“In order to provide an across-the-board-accounting, it needs subpoena power and its statutory-purview needs to be expanded,” he said. “The bipartisan bill does these things and it does them well.”

Jaycox noted that the SPOT Act would make being a PCLOB board member a full-time job. Some of the current board members have full-time jobs elsewhere. “They are restricted in how much time they can work since they are part-time,” he said.

Referring to President Obama’s past statements of support for new transparency and civil liberties initative, Jaycox called on the president to declare his support for the SPOT Act.

“The Obama administration has extensively discussed its aspirations to be a transparent government that values privacy,” he said. “Now is the time to show it by supporting this common-sense bill.”

Photo via Yuri Samoilov/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.