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Privacy advocates are concerned about what the proposals to end NSA data collection really mean. After studying the different drafts, they discovered that agencies will probably still end up on top.
Underlying Meanings of End Bulk NSA Data Collection Proposals
Advocacy groups have become very suspicious of the proposals to end mass NSA data collection. After Obama released his proposal, other government agencies began to write up their own, comparable plans. This abrupt move to support the end to mass NSA data collection did not make sense. People don’t just switch camps because they’ve had an attack of conscience.
Private citizens are protected to some degree by the proposals that seek prevent agencies from holding data. But experts knew there was something wrong as soon as one proposal’s original name, “End Bulk Collection Act”, was changed. It had to be changed because it does not actually end bulk NSA data collection or intelligence agencies’ access to it.
On carefully examining the proposals, privacy groups found what the NSA and other spy agencies have to gain from the plan. They concluded that if one of these bills is passed into law, it can create a very firm legal precedent for spying on Americans. This form of legal precedent can give the government an established entitlement to violate citizens’ constitutional rights.
The House Intelligence Committee Bill
The bill drafted by the House Intelligence Committee for instance will endanger Americans’ rights to privacy according to Congressman Justin Amash. More parts of this bill refer to how the government can get their hands on data held by Internet companies. A true proposal about ending bulk collection should not be about more alternatives for getting the data. The House bill also seems to prevent court opposition by stating broad instances in which the judge must deny petitions to refuse the release of data.
The White House Bill, a.k.a. Obama’s Proposal
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also questioning Obama’s proposal. It contains more safeguards than the Intelligence Committee bill. But they do not come close to the protections that would be guaranteed by the USA Freedom Act. And the ongoing changes to the House bill may be presented to Congress as early as this week. This will leave no room for the more citizen-friendly USA Freedom Act to be considered. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer also says that bulk NSA data collection must be stopped under all statutes, not just under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. And it should apply to all types of data, not just phone records.
Jaffer also states that the definition of phone records must be clarified. This also applies to the standards that will be used for judging what phone records can be requested. He points out that the standards were removed from earlier versions of the bill. This is a deliberate move to make the process vague, increasing the leeway that agencies have to push for the release of data. For example, the first draft said that the NSA was allowed to request data on a phone number if they could prove that terrorism was involved. Then it became data two hops from the original number, which could mean tens of thousands of other people. And the use of the phrase “national security concerns” is so broad that it could put almost every journalist on the planet on the NSA’s list of targets.
What the Bills Leave Out
The bills both fail to include some very important points. First, there is nothing about stopping the NSA from creating and using backdoor access to data. This backdoor access is currently done without court approval or warrants. Second, it does not prevent the NSA from continuing its efforts to break data encryption to gain access to protected data. Third, it says nothing about how they will change NSA data collection and treatment as it applies to foreign nationals.
This is not the first time that Congress has been challenged to impose reforms on unconstitutional spying. They were called to action when Bush supported NSA wiretapping without warrants. They held hearings when they did the same to US citizens in 2005. They investigated when the NSA collected American phone records in 2006. They were confronted the same year when proof surfaced that the NSA was recording Internet traffic en masse. Nothing really happened to change things after each of the above instances. The worry now is that Congress will again downplay the situation and even legalize these objectionable practices. This is what they did for Bush when they passed the FISA Amendments Act. This is what they did when they gave immunity to telecoms that participated in questionable NSA spying.
We can’t let ourselves get caught up in the excitement of NSA spying reforms. We can be happy that the government is finally doing something to make things better. And it can feel good that they are moving quickly. But we should be cautious and not let it happen too fast. We cannot afford to miss the most important aspects of these reforms in the rush to see it accomplished.