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Tech giants throw their weight behind USA Freedom Act

May 12, 20155 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

After the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records is illegal, seven tech groups endorsed the USA Freedom Act.

After the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records is illegal – that Congress hadn’t given its approval to indiscriminately hoover up all telephone calls by millions of Americans who are not suspected of committing any crime – seven tech groups including the tech giants in the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, sent a letter (pdf) endorsing the USA Freedom Act.

“Public trust in the technology sector is critical, and that trust has declined measurably among both U.S. citizens and citizens of our foreign allies since the revelations regarding the U.S. surveillance programs began 2 years ago,” the group wrote. Regarding the USA Freedom Act, they said, “Critically, the bill ends the indiscriminate collection of bulk data, avoids data retention mandates, and creates a strong transparency framework for both government and private companies to report national security requests.”

On June 1, three provisions of the Patriot Act will expire: Section 215, the “Lone Wolf provision,” and the “roving wiretap” provision. The tech industry is throwing its weight into backing the USA Freedom Act; while it reins in the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, it’s far from perfect and has been called “a smaller Big Brother.”

Back in March, the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, sent a letter to President Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and NSA Chief Michael Rogers outlining necessary reforms to Patriot Act surveillance.

US Appeals court: NSA’s phone data surveillance program is illegal

Last week a federal appeals court agreed. The way the NSA interprets Section 215 of the Patriot Act to authorize the telephone metadata collection program “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized.” It added, “Congress cannot reasonably be said to have ratified a program of which many members of Congress – and all members of the public – were not aware.”

“The bulk collection of data as to essentially the entire population of the United States, something inconceivable before the advent of high-speed computers, permits the development of a government database with a potential for invasions of privacy unimaginable in the past,” the appellate judges said (pdf). They urged Congress to define what is “reasonable” regarding surveillance methods in “a world in which individuals can barely function without involuntarily creating metadata.”

“The statutes to which the government points have never been interpreted to authorize anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here,” the appeals court decision stated. “The sheer volume of information sought is staggering.”

Furthermore if the government’s legal arguments are correct, then it could use Section 215:

“to collect and store in bulk any other existing metadata available anywhere in the private sector, including metadata associated with financial records, medical records, and electronic communications (including e‐mail and social media information) relating to all Americans.”

Bipartisan plan to filibuster Patriot Act reauthorization

Unlike the tech groups who endorse the USA Freedom Act, Senator and Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul voted against the bill since he believed it did not rein in the NSA enough. In fact, Paul suggested, “Now that the appellate court has ruled that Section 215 doesn’t authorize bulk collection, would the USA Freedom Act actually be expanding the Patriot Act?”

Both Paul and Senator Ron Wyden have said they will filibuster to block a renewal of the Patriot Act provisions that will sunset on June 1.

Wyden said, “What usually happens is [Senate Republicans] say, ‘Let’s just have a short-term extension of it.’ I’m tired of extending a bad law. If they come back with that effort to basically extend this for a short term without major reforms like ending the collection of phone records, I do intend to filibuster.”

Paul announced, “I’m going to lead the charge in the next couple of weeks as the Patriot Act comes forward. We will be filibustering. We will be trying to stop it. We are not going to let them run over us. And we are going to demand amendments and we are going to make sure the American people know that some of us at least are opposed to unlawful searches.”

President Obama’s own review group determined bulk collection of telephone records by the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act has never helped stop “an unknown terrorist plot” or “terrorist attack.” The group recommended reforming the NSA to protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. Add that to the federal court ruling the NSA’s mass surveillance is illegal and some in the government’s intelligence apparatus seem to be freaking out.

Fear-mongering kicks in high gear as Patriot Act’s future is uncertain

On the flipside, surveillance lovers are cranking up the fear-mongering. Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson appeared on ABC’s This Week, warning citizens that ISIS terror cells are hidden across America, and thanks to the Internet, ISIS can “strike at any moment.”

NSA Chief Michael Rogers has previously insisted the U.S. needs to create a framework for mass data collection that can result in “timely access to data” yet still protect Americans’ privacy. “We need to come up with a process that lets us generate insights and access the data in a much quicker time frame,” he claimed.

FBI Director James Comey claimed, “The haystack is the entire country.” He added, “We are looking for the needles, but increasingly the needles are unavailable to us. … This is the ‘going dark’ problem in living color.”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.