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Sen. Patrick Leahy: 'Our Privacy Is Part Of Our Security'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Civil liberties advocates enjoyed a win with new legislation curbing limits on the NSA's bulk phone records collection program. But the new law doesn't really do much to change the spy agency's Internet surveillance programs. Edward Snowden's leaks revealed NSA systems for going after email chats, videos and more from the biggest tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Skype. Now, laws that allow for this include a presidential directive, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Senator Patrick Leahy is here to talk more. He's been pushing for some changes. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, when it comes to phone data, we've been told that the NSA was sweeping for metadata, right? Who made what call when, not the content - not listening to the content of the calls. From what you know, do current NSA Internet surveillance programs show them the content of our Internet communications?

LEAHY: They have the ability to do that if they want, but thing is, at a time when Americans have more and more matters on the Internet, most Americans want a sense of privacy. A lot of us don't realize how much of our privacy we're exposing by the internet. We want to update a law that was passed a generation ago. Otherwise, you're going to have a case where no matter whether the NSA or anybody else does it, you're not going to have the laws that are going to match our expectation of privacy with the computers, the email, the way we do business today.

CORNISH: So is your concern how much data could be potentially swept up, or is it the issue of collecting and holding on to it?

LEAHY: Well, it's both. And what I want to make sure, if you're going to collect data from there, it's done the same way that if law enforcement wanted to collect data from your home, they have to get a search warrant, go to the court, get a search warrant, probably cause and so forth to make that search. Well, if instead of you keeping your files in your home, you're keeping it in the cloud, they ought to have the same requirement for a search warrant in order to obtain that. Unless we have some of this legislation, then none of us can be - feel secure that anything we store electronically is safe.

CORNISH: For many months, there was a lot of confusion about what exactly spy agencies were able to look at, which agencies were involved. Can you give us - based on your knowledge, what do you know about what kind of internet surveillance there is?

LEAHY: That's the reason I want this legislation. Nobody knows how much they're doing, and that's what should be frightening to Americans.

CORNISH: From what we've learned from the Edward Snowden leaks, these programs are supposed to be focused on foreign suspects, and the criticism has been that the data of innocent Americans can be swept up in the process. So are you seeking to end them altogether or essentially put limits on it?

LEAHY: Well, we want to put limits on it, but we did this with the legislation that passed last night. And we have reforms that we saw take place. We also are going to have more better transparency. We're going to have an ability for people to know what is being looked at. I don't take, as some said back a year - or a couple years ago said, you know, we protect all this data we take. Only a tiny handful of people can even access it, then, only for law enforcement matters. I said, well, with the exception, of course, of a 28-year-old contractor who was somehow able to walk off with all of it.

CORNISH: People haven't, on the Hill, been talking about Internet records and Internet data collection as much. Do you see momentum now?

LEAHY: I think there is momentum. I think this debate, especially when it came up against the cliff. In the Senate, they finally realized that what a lot of people in the house - Republicans or Democrats - realized that we better face up to this because it is Americans' privacy. It's not just our security. It's our privacy, and our privacy is part of our security. And if we don't take steps, it's going to be hard to turn it back.

CORNISH: Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont - he's a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thank you so much for speaking me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.