Renew or repeal? Spy law battle heats up on Capitol Hill

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3 mins
patriot act

On June 1st, one controversial section of the Patriot Act — Section 215 — expires. Both the NSA and the FBI are fighting hard to have this legislation and its accompanying powers extended, while privacy advocates say it’s time to reign in both spy agencies. Even as the battle heats up, governments in other countries are pushing through their own versions of this surveillance law; what does it all mean for the average user?

Section 215, Simplified

This section of the Patriot Act drew attention after whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed it was being used to collect the phone records of citizens across the country. The Guardian first broke this story in 2013 — the NSA claimed that Section 215, which allows U.S. law enforcement and surveillance agencies to collect business records, allowed them to conduct bulk collection, storage and examination of phone records.

As the expiry date on this portion of the Patriot Act looms, privacy defenders say it’s time to limit these powers and bring spy agencies back under control. But FBI and NSA advocates have been busy holding secret briefings on Capitol Hill, claiming that without the powers linked to Section 215 they’ll lose valuable leads on terrorism and espionage cases because they won’t be able to collect information such as credit card data or hotel records without a warrant. According to RT, lawmakers who attended these briefings say their questions about legality have been met with assurances of efficacy. As Rep. Thomas Maffie puts it, “We said ‘How can this possibly be legal?’ and they would say ‘this program works great, here’s how it’s helping us catch terrorists.”

Despite sidestepping fundamental privacy rights in their quest for better information, however, spy agencies have been largely immune to the winds of change on this issue. In 2014, for example, the government tried to impose reforms on the Patriot Act via the USA Freedom Act, but this bill failed to pass the senate — and even if June 1st marks the end of Section 215 other powers such as the “roving wiretap” under Section 206 will remain unaffected.

Help and Hinder

To boost their chances of getting the information they need even if some powers are repealed, spy agencies are courting American companies As noted by The Intercept, there’s now a chance that big businesses may benefit by helping out the government and providing confidential consumer information.

It works like this: Under the new Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), if companies are willing to share information with the government, some of the responsibility for taking reasonable precautions against malicious cyberattacks shifts to federal agencies. Better still? By sharing requested data with spy organizations, companies are granted broad immunity to consumer privacy lawsuits — even if these companies previously promised to safeguard this personal information. In effect, the NSA, FBI, CIA and other spy agencies are trying a new tactic: Instead of compelling businesses to give up their secrets, they’re offering coverage for any failures, present or future. It’s a tempting offer.

Beyond Borders

While the United States is an easy target for surveillance worries thanks to the NSAs blatant abuse of public trust, the country is hardly alone when it comes to spy legislation. In Turkey, for example, parliament recently granted police the ability to conduct online surveillance of suspected militants for up to 48 hours with court orders. In France, meanwhile, a proposed anti-terrorism law is just making its way into government chambers. Some of the highlights include federal monitoring of emails and phone calls without the authorization of a judge, along with compelling telecommunications and Internet service providers (ISPs) to filter, analyze and freely disseminate user metadata to government agencies on request. The Verge describes the proposed law as France trying to “fight terrorism by spying on everyone.”

So what’s going to happen on June 1st? It’s anyone’s guess. While citizens are increasingly protective of their right to online privacy — and taking steps to safeguard their actions, such as using TOR-based networks and VPN services — governments across the world are introducing legislation which contains broader powers for spy agencies and fewer defenses for users. Hopefully, repealing Section 215 will be the start of change for the better to American Internet laws, but in the meantime, users shouldn’t take anything for granted; right now, the law isn’t on their side.

Featured image: K Whiteford / Public Domain