Want real surveillance reform? Well, we almost had it. The USA Freedom Act started off with a roar before being slightly weakened (compromised is the word being used) by the House Security and Judiciary Committees. Still, it had wide ranging support across the floor. It was a sufficient start to a bill set to curtail the surveillance programs in the United States considerably and the civil liberties community in Congress rallied behind it.
And then came the amendments. Amendments tacked on by the Rules Committee that took a bill, which was already being criticized as slightly weak, and made it almost wholly ineffective.
For instance, one section of the bill that was intended to minimize what the NSA was allowed to look for was rewritten to include ambiguous language. It was initially instated to ban the bulk collecting of information. But a simple word change has shifted the playing field. Instead of being able to only look for ‘unique’ terms to describe a person, entity or account it is now “a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device.”
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While that legalese may not seem like that big of a difference (and that’s part of the point in using such vague terminology) it means that instead of having to have a unique connection to take data, now you just need a…well…a term. Whereas a proper connection would have sufficed in original wording, something even as broad as a zip code is legal under the amended version.
The new amendments also give approval to something called Section 702. So here’s the deal: the NSA has always had approval to look at communications to and from its targets. However, its approval to look at information about said targets falls into very murky legal waters (meaning it basically isn’t legal). Section 702 in the new bill actually gives tacit endorsement to the NSA to look at information ‘about’ the target that is coming in and out of the country. That’s right, the bill meant to reform surveillance just increased its legal authority to do so.
Furthermore, this bill takes oversight away from the Attorney General and puts it right into the hands of the Director of National Intelligence. So any declassifications or reviews of documents are going to be handled by the director first.
There are a number of other issues within the bill, which include the weakening of transparent reporting provisions which means companies will no longer be able to publish the amount of court orders they’ve received to turn over data.
At the moment, companies are allowed by the Department of Justice to make public any national security letters they receive. With the new provisions from this bill, they will have to wait six months before they are allowed to make them public.
This new bill, so thoroughly gutted and with even harsher surveillance tactics tacked on, caused a number in the House of Representatives to pull their complete support. Those who represent individual liberties were horrified. As per the Rules Committee, the amendments weren’t up for debate.
This means that Representatives could not attempt to change the bill, but simply vote yes or no. Many who had supported the initial reform felt it was important to pass the bill despite it being currently weakened. After all, they assumed, it’s better to get the ball rolling on reform than to have it stall out in the House.
Others were so unimpressed they pulled their vote. In the end, it passed 300-131.
The USA Freedom Act is now headed to the Senate for a final vote before it heads to the desk of the President. Google and Human Rights Watch have both spoken out on the issue, with HRW calling on the Senate to: “restore the safeguards that the House rejected when it takes up its own version of the USA Freedom Act, and go further to protect the rights of the world’s Internet users.”
Now is where the American public comes in. Despite many feeling helpless in our current political climate, calling your Senator can make an impact. Senators are worried about votes, so if you are a constituent, they need you. Pulling your support does scare them.
So, if you are worried about this bill here is something you can do: go find your Senator, and call or email them. Let them know that unless they support or sponsor meaningful reform, you will not support their reelection. This is how democracy works, and it’s up to us now, the people, to ensure we make our voices heard.