USA Liberty Act passes House Judiciary Committee despite privacy concerns

Privacy news
3 mins
What is the USA Liberty Act?

A terrifying new law that could change the scope of mass surveillance just passed another hurdle. On November 8th, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee introduced the USA Liberty Act with overwhelming 27-8 support. The bipartisan bill is said to ‘fix’ many of the NSA’s surveillance shortcomings; only it addresses the wrong issues.

What is the USA Liberty Act?

The USA Liberty Act was first introduced to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is set to expire at the end of December. This highly controversial law is what gives the NSA the freedom to collect massive amounts of digital data on suspected terrorists outside the U.S. The USA Liberty Act will also allow the NSA to gather an unparalleled amount of metadata on unsuspecting citizens, as the Snowden leaks proved.

In fact, while proponents of Section 702 argue it makes Americans safer, privacy advocates claim the opposite, citing the many cases where the NSA has abused this power to perform “backdoor searches” on law-abiding citizens without requiring a warrant.

“…the NSA has yet to publicly disclose how many Americans are impacted by this surveillance”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says it best:

“Section 702 of FISA—enacted in 2008 with little public awareness about the scope and power of the NSA’s surveillance of the Internet—supposedly directs the NSA’s powerful surveillance apparatus toward legitimate foreign intelligence targets overseas. Instead, the surveillance has been turned back on us. Despite repeated inquiries from Congress, the NSA has yet to publicly disclose how many Americans are impacted by this surveillance.”

What the USA Liberty does wrong

Instead of addressing these issues, the USA Liberty Act—in its current form—will now require the FBI to obtain a warrant before they can collect data on Americans when seeking evidence but not when cases allegedly involve counter-terrorism.

Essentially, the FBI will have the freedom to decide when to require a warrant, and when not to.

Coincidentally, on the same day the USA Liberty Act was approved, the House rejected another amendment that would close the backdoor loophole that allows the NSA to collect metadata from average citizens.

Privacy advocates are perplexed, and many other lawmakers confused, as the USA Liberty Act restricts some aspects of the mass spying program but gives more freedom to others.

The anti-Snowden effect?

In light of the many privacy leaks that started with Snowden, the idea of metadata collection and mass spying programs are now almost universally seen as taboo practices, yet instead of writing measures to counteract the NSA’s invasive reach, this bill is actively seeking to give them more power.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, who helped introduce a more privacy-centric bill that was immediately shot down, showed visible frustration at the committee’s apparent lack of empathy for the public’s right to privacy. “We have created a measure that has actually taken us backwards in terms of constitutional rights,” Lofgren said.

A glimmer of hope for privacy?

“The ultimate goal here is to reauthorize a very important program with meaningful and responsible reforms,” Chairman Goodlatte of the House Judiciary Committee said. “If we do not protect this careful compromise, all sides of this debate risk losing.”

Of course, not everyone is onboard with this new bill. Committee representative Justin Amash tweeted his concern directly after the hearing, stating that the bill directly violates the Fourth Amendment.

One more reason to always keep your VPN on

The bill now moves to the House floor and will compete with a handful of other legislative documents that hope to address what to do after Section 702 expires. As surveillance is still a heated issue among many members of Congress—with some claiming the current bill isn’t strong enough—expect a wave of pro and anti-arguments in the coming weeks.

As the government wavers on what to do about surveillance, make sure you take your privacy into your own hands with a VPN.