Despite a patriotism-soaked title, the USA Freedom Act has faced an uphill battle to move forward through Congress. Little wonder: The bill, while preposterously named, is a National Security Agency reform bill and, as such, was bound to face opposition and delay.
However, with newly garnered support from Republican Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the act is expected to pass the committee this week and head to the House floor for further wrangling. We can expect a tableau of political brinkmanship, which will imbue the bill with the semblance of high significance. Don't be fooled: This NSA reform effort is limited at best, highlighting what I see as the bounds of legislative action in dismantling the sprawling and unbounded corporate-government surveillance state under which we live.
The USA Freedom Act — currently the most popular NSA reform bill on the table on Capitol Hill — first framed itself as the path to ending bulk spy agency surveillance on Americans. But it heads to the House in a highly compromised form. Telecoms companies will still be required to hoard all communications records in NSA-surveillable form.
'We remain subjects ripe for surveillance. Power asymmetries around who can access our communications and personal information remain unchanged by the USA Freedom Act's proposals.'
Decisions over which Americans' communications (always stored, if not by the government, then by a telecoms giant) will remain within the black box of NSA and secretive spy court (the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) deliberations. As the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman noted: "Significantly, the government will still be able to collect phone data on Americans, pending a judge’s individualized order based on 'reasonable articulable suspicion' — a standard preferred by the NSA — of wrongdoing, and can collect call records two degrees or 'hops' of separation from the individual suspected."
We remain subjects ripe for surveillance. Power asymmetries around who can access our communications and personal information remain unchanged by the USA Freedom Act's proposals. Privacy advocates should not be placated by such minimal tweaks, borne of realpolitik, to surveillance practices as put forward by the legislation. And I urge this skepticism even before inevitable further compromises are heaped upon the bill as it moves through the congressional quagmire.
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