House committee approves bill to end NSA phone records program

1 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Expansive surveillance reform takes backseat to House politics.

A U.S. The NSA’s phone-snooping program is likely on its last legs after a key House committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday to end the Patriot Act’s bulk-collection powers that the government was relying on to keep the phone program up and running.

Credit: Mike Licht, / photo on flickrA new attempt to scale back the mass domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) is making its way through Congress.As lawmakers stare down the barrel of a deadline to renew or reform the Patriot Act, they have all but assured that more expansive reforms to U.S. intelligence powers won’t be included.

Obama is looking to end Section 215 of the Act, which authorizes the bulk collection of American citizens phone records. “The president has been quite definitive about the need to make those kinds of reforms a top priority,” White House flack Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “McConnell and Sen. It’s not because of the substance of the reforms — which practically all members of the House Judiciary Committee said they support on Thursday — but because they would derail a carefully calibrated deal and are opposed by GOP leaders in the House and Senate.

The Senate leader is fast-tracking the legislation, meaning it will bypass committee review and go directly onto the Senate calendar.” The anti-privacy, pro-panopticon defense hawks in the GOP are in favor of the extension, naturally. His bill disregards any need for intelligence community reform, to the point where it almost seems like he doesn’t care about public opinion (or, obviously, letting people get spied on).

Opponents said changes would upend a carefully crafted compromise with House Republican leaders who have threatened to kill an amended bill. “The USA Freedom Act ends bulk collection, increases transparency and stops secret laws” made in the U.S. surveillance court, said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and primary sponsor of the bill. He may still have a problem with H.R. 2048, because this version is even a little bit weaker than last year’s effort, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Ted Poe (R-Texas) would block the spy agency from using powers under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act to collect Americans’ Internet communications without a warrant. The NSA’s collection of huge numbers of U.S. telephone records relies on a “blatant misreading” of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, added Sensenbrenner, the primary author of that 2001 law.

Under the NSA program that has become the focus of the debate, the government collects and stores five years’ worth of records recording the numbers, times and durations of phone calls made within the U.S. It’s not encouraging that a massive amount of its funds are going towards a single facility in Utah. “The $1.7 billion facility, two years in the making, will soon host supercomputers to store gargantuan quantities of data from emails, phone calls, Google searches and other sources,” reporter Rory Carroll wrote in an article for The Guardian. “Sited on an unused swath of the national guard base, by September it will employ around 200 technicians, span 1 million square feet and use 65 megawatts of power.” Distressing still is the limited usefulness of the base.

The NSA has relied on the powers of Section 702 to conduct its “PRISM” and “Upstream” collection programs, which gather data from major Web companies such as Facebook and Google, as well as to tap into the networks that make up the backbone of the Internet. Federal officials insist they only store the data and don’t peruse it unless they have a specific reason to believe a number is relevant to a terrorism investigation.

Much of the information the base handles will be encrypted, meaning all such information will be unreadable until it is “decoded.” This process can seriously hinder the practical applications such data can have, especially in time-sensitive cases. What that means is that if the bill passes, the NSA won’t be able to scoop up data en masse from telecom companies like it did before; instead, it would be required to request data using keywords.

But civil libertarians say collecting and holding the data in the first place is an abuse, and point to the conclusions of several reviews that say the information hasn’t been relevant in stopping terrorist plots. A broad selection term (“People in California” or “People with Verizon phones”) would mean massive record collection, but carefully constructed and defined specific selection terms would strictly limit the collection. That’s not even touching the fact that the vast majority of data collected is from innocent Americans who have nothing to do with national security. The committee struck down a handful of amendments designed to strengthen privacy protections or further limit NSA collection of U.S. residents’ communications or records.

The bill that cleared the House committee Thursday would prohibit indiscriminate collection of data and also reins in federal investigators’ ability to demand information through secret national security letters. Unsurprisingly enough, the NSA is having trouble storing all this data. “The intelligence people I’ve spoken to are warning of data crunch – a polite way of saying they’re drowning,” intelligence historian Matthew Aid told The Guardian. “They say they don’t have enough capacity and will be back to Congress looking for more money to expand.” This seems greatly counter-productive. The move to drop the fix was all the more frustrating, supporters of the amendment said, because Congress overwhelmingly voted 293-123 to add similar language to a defense spending bill last year. “How can it be when the House of Representatives has expressed its will on this very question, by a vote of 293-123, that that is illegitimate?” asked Rep. A much-debated amendment would have prohibited the FBI and other agencies from searching the content of email messages, text messages and phone calls belonging to U.S. residents when those communications are swept up in a second NSA program targeting foreign terrorists.

And with its patriotic name engineered to garner bipartisan support, USA Freedom is getting pushed as a way to curb government oversteps, with support across the aisle and from big tech companies like Google and Facebook. The amendment, offered by Lofgren and Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, would have also prohibited U.S. government agencies from pressuring tech vendors into building surveillance back doors into their products. In these cases, the term must be a “person, account, address, or personal device.” The term must also limit the scope of these requests for information to the greatest extent possible, and cannot collect records that are overly broad, like those that relate to a geographic region or an entire electronic communications service provider. The House, last June, overwhelmingly approved a similar amendment in a Department of Defense funding bill, Lofgren noted, although the amendment was stripped out before final approval. It expands surveillance of foreign nationals coming in and out of the country, and increases penalties for people caught providing “material support” to terrorists.

But the legal justifications that allow for mass surveillance have become a massive multi-headed hydra, and this legislation would just chop through a couple of necks. Simply there is no good reason to reauthorize these provisions, as even top government officials admit that mass collection is not worth the price tag. The NSA justifies this giant collection on the basis of its relevance in the fight again terror, however, the President’s Review Board found the opposite to be true. “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional orders,” the Board said in a report titled “Liberty and Security in a Changing World.” Why pay for something of this size that is “non-essential?” Moreover, the President himself has called for the removal of the provisions in question in an attempt to “to give the public greater confidence that their privacy is appropriately protected,” according to National Security should not be an all-encompassing excuse for the government to pass whatever laws it wishes; they should hold some relevance to the issues at hand. The Center for Democracy and Technology endorses the bill, but it points out that it doesn’t limit data retention for information collected on people who turn out to have no connection to a suspect or target, and emphasizes that this is not an omnibus solution.

Yet better alternatives, like the Surveillance State Repeal Act, have no real chance of garnering support in Congress precisely because they are so much more comprehensive that they will invariably alienate the intelligence community. Ultimately, ending bulk surveillance necessitates addressing Executive Order 12333, the primary legal authority the NSA uses to surveil non-Americans.

It would also allow businesses who get records requests from the FBI through its national security letter program to challenge orders requiring those businesses to keep quiet. Surveillance abuses will not be resolved until our broken classification system—which shields matters of public importance from public scrutiny—is fixed. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to advise judges about privacy and civil liberties, communications technology, and other technical or legal matters.

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