House reaches deal on bill to end NSA phone collection

1 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bill would end NSA’s collection of phone records.

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.A bipartisan team introduced the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015,” or “USA FREEDOM Act of 2015,” (pdf), this week as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which gives the government authority for the collection, nears expiration on June 1.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.

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. 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. 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. Mike Lee (R-Utah), said in a statement. “Our bill will definitively end the NSA’s bulk collection under Section 215.” “It is imperative that we reform these programs to protect Americans’ privacy while at the same time protecting our national security,” said cosponsoring Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) in a joint statement. “It enhances civil liberties protections, increases transparency for both American businesses and the government, ends the bulk collection of data, and provides national security officials targeted tools to keep America safe from foreign enemies.” “The supporters of dragnet surveillance are going to fight hard to preserve the status quo, but the American public is rightfully demanding a change,” Sen.

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 transparency group takes issue with the provision calling for a representative at the surveillance court. “The real argument should be about whether any secret court should exist in America – especially one that can privately redefine what the law itself means,” the Foundation said. “Also … the amicus curiae (or special advocate, as the Senate bill last year called it) is blindfolded.

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. 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. Nothing in this section shall be construed to require the Government to provide information to an amicus curiae appointed by the court that is privileged from disclosure.”

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. 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. It expands surveillance of foreign nationals coming in and out of the country, and increases penalties for people caught providing “material support” to terrorists. 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 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. 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. 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. 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).

Ultimately, ending bulk surveillance necessitates addressing Executive Order 12333, the primary legal authority the NSA uses to surveil non-Americans. 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.

Surveillance abuses will not be resolved until our broken classification system—which shields matters of public importance from public scrutiny—is fixed.

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