After weeks of political grandstanding, brash rhetoric, and failed power plays, one of the of the National Security Agency’s most egregious mass surveillance authorities is no more. With passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, the practice of bulk collection of Americans’ phone records will stop, and we have finally made significant progress in protecting the privacy rights of citizens from overly invasive government snooping.
This is a monumental victory for every American who values their privacy and freedom. And yes, you can have absolutely nothing to hide from law enforcement or intelligence agencies and still demand your right to be left alone. While it was easy to get distracted by the posturing that took place in Congress, that’s the real meaning of this reform: our personal thoughts and expressions will not be swept up in a mass dragnet on the off chance they might be useful.
It is more than appropriate to have a debate about what boundaries are necessary to shape a connected world that still reflects our core American values of independence, autonomy, and privacy.
While often framed as national security versus privacy, the efforts to reform the NSA’s mass surveillance practices are really about updating the authorities for intelligence gathering for today’s digital age. Back when many of the authorities used to justify intrusive surveillance by the government were created, the Internet was truly in its infancy and mobile phones were not nearly as pervasive. With the amount of information shared electronically on a daily basis, we are quite honestly living in the golden age of surveillance. With this reality, it is more than appropriate to have a debate about what boundaries are necessary to shape a connected world that still reflects our core American values of independence, autonomy, and privacy.
The USA FREEDOM Act was an important first step in the broader reform needed to around government surveillance. By ending all PATRIOT Act authorities for bulk collection of information about Americans, it has returned the important precedent that investigations should be targeted. By definition, bulk collection cannot be targeted. By removing these bulk collections authorities, including several beyond the much talked about Section 215 authority, the USA FREEDOM Act closed the door on the government expanding its program beyond phone record metadata. These same authorities could have been used to collect Internet communications metadata, web browsing data, location data, purchase data, and medical data. In fact one – the FISA Pen Register/Trap and Trace law – was already used for bulk collection of our Internet metadata for years, an intrusive program that could have been restarted at any time until we passed the USA FREEDOM Act.
And while the USA FREEDOM Act represents the first time in a generation that surveillance practices have actually been rolled back, we must not become complacent and think that government surveillance is a thing of the past. That’s not even close to the truth. The reality is that the government demands access to digital content stored in the cloud without having a warrant and they can still conduct wide-reaching surveillance on foreign targets that sweeps up communications information from American citizens.
We still need to see updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act if we want to force the government to get a warrant to access our emails. We must close loopholes in Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to put an end to intelligence agencies tapping directly into Internet cables and scanning all traffic going into and out of the country. And we need to be vigilant against the numerous cybersecurity bills moving through Congress that are truly just new surveillance authorities cloaked in a cyber veil.
No, I don’t have anything illegal to hide, but I also shouldn’t feel as though someone is looking over my shoulder constantly.
Now is a time to capitalize on the momentum of reform and surge forward in defining the boundaries needed to live a private life in the digital world. As Edward Snowden said in his New York Times editorial, we now have an informed public on surveillance and this public is more powerful. I for one don’t want the government to automatically know whenever I’m emailing with my doctor, texting my children’s teachers, or making online interactions with my bank. No, I don’t have anything illegal to hide, but I also shouldn’t feel as though someone is looking over my shoulder constantly.
Beyond being creepy and uncomfortable, PATRIOT Act bulk collection has not proven effective in stopping crimes or terrorist attacks. Rather, it creates a chilling effect that threatens to halt creative expression, limit open dialogue and dissent, and discourage innovation. With big win under out belts, I am hopefully that all citizens – both in the United States and worldwide – will feel empowered to demand their right to freedom, to push back on the false dichotomy of security versus privacy, and to live as an individual.