Edward Snowden

A year after Snowden, still no new law to curb NSA's bulk surveillance

Still no law passed to curb NSA bulk collection of Americans' phone and data records a year after contractor revealed extent of surveillance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 June, 2014, 9:43am

One year ago this week, the first in a series of leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the US government was collecting the domestic phone records of American citizens in bulk.

Since then, new information about government data mining and surveillance has emerged, showing a sophisticated set of digital tools that appear to be aimed at trying to "collect it all".

But the policy debate surrounding the privacy implications of these programmes is still in flux a year later. Perhaps the biggest victory for civil liberties advocates has been heightened awareness around government surveillance and data collection.

"Prior to the Snowden leaks, if you'd said the NSA was collecting everyone's phone records, or that it was sucking up masses of data directly from the internet backbone both here in the US and abroad, you'd be called a crazy conspiracy theorist," said Kevin Bankston, policy director for the New American Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

Attention has been slow to translate into substantive policy reforms, perhaps in part because the public remains divided on whether and how much the government should prioritise security over privacy.

Among the rank and file in the US Congress, some were outraged by the government's surveillance behaviour. Congressman Justin Amash, a Republican, led a bipartisan rebellion in the House in July, narrowly losing a vote on an amendment to defund the phone records collection programme, despite opposition from leaders in both parties.

As more revelations from Snowden's documents appeared in the press, legislative proposals aimed at addressing privacy concerns emerged over the fall. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, introduced her version in September, although critics including the Electronic Frontier Foundation called the measure an attempt to "codify and extend" government surveillance powers.

USA Patriot Act author Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, introduced their reform proposal in October. The USA Freedom Act, as it was called, was considered to be one of the more agreeable bills to privacy advocates at the time.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama began to soften his rhetoric. In August, Obama announced that he would work with Congress on reforms to some programmes, and appointed a board of outside experts to review NSA spying efforts.

That group, which turned out to be mostly former White House insiders and intelligence community members, released its report in December. It made 46 recommendations, including urging phone companies or a private third party to maintain phone records data instead of the government. The NSA and other agencies could then gain access only by court order.

The president didn't take the group's advice on every issue, such as separating the positions of NSA chief and the head of US Cyber Command. But in a January speech Obama announced he would change how the government interacted with domestic phone records and "establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata".

But even now, it is unclear exactly how the new system would work.

"The Obama administration and Congress have gone from vigorously defending the bulk records programme as perfectly legal and absolutely necessary to national security," said the New America Foundation's Bankston, "to conceding that maybe some reform might be necessary, to finally admitting that the government's collection of that much data about its citizens is an unjustifiable threat to privacy and liberty that must end."

Still, the trajectory of the debate may not translate into changes that would please privacy advocates.

The USA Freedom Act, the most significant legislation on the horizon, made it out of the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees in a compromise form. It addresses the bulk collection of phone records, Bankston said, but not the spy agency's use of wiretapping, malware and spyware.


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