On Friday, the US House of Representatives passed a “landmark” bill dubbed the USA Freedom Act, which in theory would place severe limitations on the data that can and can’t be collected by bulk surveillance efforts on behalf of the NSA.
What should have been a joyous occasion for privacy advocates everywhere, has instead been morphed into a minor celebration for the passage of a tepid, watered down version of the only bill that’s been drafted so far to reign in the powers that the NSA has wielded for far too long.
First proposed as a sort of “anti-Patriot Act”, the new Freedom Act barely resembles the bill that initially made its way through the various channels and committees earlier this month. By changing the wording on several different statutes, the interpretation of the instructions included within the bill can be about as broad and vague as they were from the start.
“The legislation passed today is a step forward in our efforts to reform the government’s surveillance authorities,” he said. “It bans bulk collection, includes important privacy provisions, and sends a clear message to the NSA: We are watching you.”
One of the changes that grated many of the major tech firms in Silicon Valley the wrong way was the broad definition of database searching. Under the act as it stands, a search inquiry is allowed if it is a “discrete term,” such as a query that would identify a “person, entity, account, address, or device.”
Previously, the act limited the searches to a “person, entity, or account,” which was seen as more specific and restrictive for intelligence agencies. Now with the extra “device” addition, anyone who uses a particular phone, tablet, or desktop can now be subject to surveillance if someone else of interest happened to use it before them to search for a tagged term.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter have all come forward to voice their displeasure with the bill as well, echoing many of the same issues that the general public have had with what could have been our best shot at changing the way we collect data in this country from here on out.
According to them, the version we’ve been left with would need substantial revisions before heading to the Senate for them to throw their weight behind it again, claiming that in its current form there’s simply too many “open terms” which could easily be subjected to interpretation by an agency which is already notorious for stretching and squinching as much out of the legal language as they can to do what they want as often as they get the chance.
Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Amnesty International have pulled their support for the bill, claiming that in its current form it doesn’t do enough to limit the powers originally given to the NSA by the Patriot Act in 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks.
“We are glad that the House added a clause to the bill clarifying the content of communications cannot be obtained with Section 215. Unfortunately, the bill’s changed definitions, the lack of substantial reform to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, and the inability to introduce a special advocate in the FISA Court severely weakens the bill.
In particular, we are concerned with the new definition of “specific selection term,” which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to surveil. The new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions. Less than a week ago, the definition was simply “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account.”
In the end it’s hard to get excited about legislation which has been effectively gutted by insider lobbyists and Washington royalty who don’t want to see their grip on power dissolve anytime soon.
What started out as a pristine, classic version of government self-regulation in a time of crisis quickly devolved into a former shell of itself, stripped of many of the mandates that would actually help it to be effective at dismantling and restructuring an agency run completely and totally amok.
All that said, it’s still something. It may be the most minimal version of what it could have been, but walk before you can run, baby steps, etc. Congress isn’t exactly known for its ability to get things done quickly or cleanly, and that’s why it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that we ended up with the version of the bill we did.
Plus, we’ve still got to pass the Senate before this thing even starts to think about becoming a law. That’s enough of a hurdle as it is, with partisan politics essentially gridlocking what’s supposed to be one of the most efficient and effective methods of getting bills passed into law in this country.