Thursday, 4 June 2015

USA Freedom Act: A Small Victory with Large Implications

President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act Wednesday, ushering in a new era of government surveillance.

The Act, passed by the United States Senate on Tuesday, will put an end to the government’s mass collection of Americans’ telephone metadata. Instead, records will remain in the hands of telephone companies and be inaccessible to government without a court order.

The Senate had previously rejected the Act, with opposing factions fighting to maintain Patriot Act mass surveillance and to extend privacy rights beyond those outlined in the USA Freedom Act.

A Rand Paul filibuster turned the tide, however.

Paul’s 10 hour speech caused the Patriot Act to lapse on Sunday night, putting an immediate stop to Section 215’s phone record collection as well as the “Lone Wolf” and “Roving Wiretap” provisions. Within two days, the Senate approved the USA Freedom Act 67-32.

Imperfect? Yes, but the new legislation unquestionably represents a Congress willing to prioritize citizens’ right to privacy over mass surveillance in the name of protection from terrorism—for the first time in a long time.

In the words of security expert Bruce Schneier on Sunday’s Patriot Act expiration, “It’s not a big win. There’s still many ways that the NSA is spying on Americans and people overseas through other provisions. But it is a small win and it’s a win and I think we take what wins we can get.” 

 The Hill pointed out that the USA Freedom Act reenacts two of the three expired Patriot Act measures: the “Lone Wolf” and “Roving Wiretap” provisions, which allow for electronic monitoring of non-U.S. persons without a proven link to terrorism and phone tapping without an identified target, respectively.

Despite the Act’s limitations, what is clear is that an alliance of Democrats and Republicans are beginning to respond to what the majority of Americans want. According to Pew Research, 54% of Americans disapprove of the U.S. government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts and 74% believe they should not give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety. Additionally, at least 90% of Americans care about who can access their information and what information is accessed.

Rand Paul’s spectacle on Sunday has more than a few people accusing him of leveraging this week’s events to gain publicity for his upcoming presidential campaign. Whatever his motivations and whatever his politics, Paul is speaking a truth that much of the government has previously ignored. In a recent op-ed, Paul sounded more like a well-informed United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur than what we have come to expect from a United States Senator: “The NSA should keep close watch on suspected terrorists to keep our country safe — through programs permitting due process, the naming of a suspect, and oversight by an accountable court. The sacrifice of our personal liberty for security is and will forever be a false choice, and I refuse to relinquish our Constitutional rights to opportunistic and overreaching politicians.”

Paul may also be an opportunistic and overreaching politician, but he does have a point. The USA Freedom Act, flawed as it is, has given digital privacy advocates a sense that maybe—just maybe—government is about to start working with us rather than against us.

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