Cartoon headphones on the Earth from the NSA

What Can We Call a Victory for Privacy Rights?

By Elise Sugarman

On June 2, one day after the Patriot Act expired, the Senate passed the USA Freedom Act to renew three parts of the Patriot Act, including the controversial Section 215. Despite keeping the section which allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to require all professionals and companies, including doctors, universities, restaurants, etc., to share their customer and/or clients’ records, the legislation ended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone collection program. This program granted the NSA the authority to collect records and information on terrorist suspects through their phone calls. Furthermore, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals determined on May 7 that the program was unconstitutional as it represents a shift in the government’s approach to combating terrorism. Specifically, the court ruled that the program is illegal because it does not fall under the clear language of the law.

The termination of this program is a small victory, as the Reform Movement has long cherished and sought to protect individuals’ right to privacy. Judaism teaches that privacy is an essential element of personality and without this right, people are denied their individuality and are thus dehumanized. The Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of this right through the story of Balaam’s refusal to curse the children of Israel. When he reached the Jewish community, “he saw that the entrances to their tents were not directly opposite each other, so that one family did not virtually intrude the privacy of the other” (B. Talmud, Baba Batra 60a). The Israelites’ value of privacy convinced Balaam to bless the community, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5) rather than follow his original intent to curse them.

Since the September 11th attacks, privacy issues have become ever more salient as the need for heightened efforts to ensure national security have come up against the unassailable civil liberties that shape and inform our government and society. Despite the USA Freedom Act’s limited victory for privacy, their phone collection program will continue for an additional six months because the Justice Department requested authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act created the FISA court, which acts as a secret tribunal to make the final decision on almost all NSA requests, thus allowing them to determine the program’s extension. Furthermore, regardless of the Senate passing the USA Freedom Act, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that the NSA’s phone collection program was illegal, the Obama administration also agreed that NSA should be allowed to continue their phone collection program for an additional six months.

While the Senate passage of the USA Freedom Act is an encouraging, important step forward to ensuring privacy rights for all Americans, many obstacles remain in place that require our attention and action.

Learn more about the RAC’s work on civil liberties here.

Elise Sugarman headshot


Elise Sugarman is a rising junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. She is a 2015 Machon Kaplan participant, and is interning at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

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Machon Kaplan Participant

About Machon Kaplan Participant

Machon Kaplan is the Religious Action Center's work/study internship program for undergraduate students interested in Judaism and social justice. Learn more at The views expressed in these posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Reform Movement.

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