The USA Patriot Act’s expiry has led to reforms on the use of counter-terrorism techniques that were first enacted in the Bush Era following 9/11. The Freedom Act was passed by the House of Representatives on Sunday night with a vote of 77 to 17 in the Senate. This bill will ban the NSA from gathering in bulk US phone communications, as well as revealing any new legal arguments for mass surveillance before a secret court.
However, Senator Ron Wyden has warned: ‘My time on the intelligence committee has taught me to always be vigilant for secret interpretations of the law and new surveillance techniques that Congress doesn’t know about’ – suggesting that the fight against the NSA’s mass spying and secret court rulings should remain subject to continuous scrutiny. Nevertheless, omissions on the nature and extent of these activities by mainstream media, legislators and politicians suggest that the fight against mass surveillance has barely begun.
Before discussing what the right solutions are between balancing security and privacy we need to ask the right questions.
What type of data does the NSA collect? Is the NSA the only agency that undertakes the bulk collection of citizen data? What about phone and Internet companies? Why is there a focus on phone records rather than Internet records? And finally, is the US the only country we should be worried about?
An NSA program named MAINWAY collects phone communications through major phone companies as AT&T and Verizon. Transcripts and phonetic representations are done automatically by a program named ‘Google for Voice’. This seems to be the main program being discussed in passing the new bill.
Republican Senator Rand Paul has rightly mentioned his concern – that despite the Freedom Act, telephone companies will continue to gather our phone communications in bulk. The rolling back of surveillance by prohibiting the NSA from collecting phone records does not therefore mean the gathering of these communications has altogether come to an end – it simply means that companies will do this instead. We should therefore remain sceptical on whether the passing of this bill represents any meaningful change. Phone companies will still store communications and as a result these will invariably be accessible. This raises two questions: Do we want phone companies to gather this data? If this data is stored, who will be able to access it?
However, the biggest concern that is being currently overlooked is the NSA’s major spying program named PRISM. This collects all online data activities and communications from Internet providers such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, Apple, AOL and You Tube. These Internet companies provide the NSA with e-mails, chats (video and voice), photos, file transfers, social networking and stored data.
Does the Freedom Act require the end of PRISM? The answer to this question remains unclear. Nothing is being mentioned about this program at the moment. Phone calls are becoming an increasingly unpopular means of communication now that the Internet allows free calls through Internet companies like Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp. If PRISM is still functioning, then the power of these programs is barely being restricted. Not to mention that even if PRISM will be ruled out this will still mean, as with phone companies, that Internet companies can still gather, store and analyse data for consumer profiling or other unknown purposes.
Finally, nothing is being mentioned about Britain’s GCHQ, which is also responsible for mass spying through phone and Internet records. The Conservative Party has announced its intentions to increase security measures by expanding its surveillance capabilities. Furthermore, Edward Snowden has warned that Britain’s GCHQ spy agency is a bigger threat than the NSA as it has very few constitutional checks on its activities and uses illegally collected information for criminal prosecutions. Therefore, even if the Freedom Act passes in the US, it seems that other allied countries will be doing the dirty work instead.
In light of these considerations the Freedom Act can barely be considered as an improvement in the war against mass spying. Rather, it seems like an effort to deceive the public into believing real changes are taking place. No wonder the charges against Snowden still stand – the right questions remain unasked and as a result new ways of creating the same problems are being presented to us as solutions.