• United States




Don’t fall for the USA ‘Freedom’ Act

Jun 05, 20154 mins
Data and Information SecurityGovernmentPrivacy

The mainstream media has celebrated the USA Freedom Act as a victory for civil liberty. It couldn't be further from the truth

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In USA Today, the headline read, “NSA data collection ended,” the morning after the USA Freedom Act was passed and signed by President Barack Obama.

Could that Orwellian doublespeak headline be any more wrong? It’s almost as misleading as the name of the law itself.

One small part of a single NSA data collection program was barely modified and we’re supposed to celebrate. Instead of the NSA directly capturing and holding the metadata for every American citizen’s cellphone conversation, the telecommunication companies must hold on to it for the NSA, and the NSA can access it through the federal court system with little trouble. That’s a crushing defeat for the NSA? All we did was save on storage costs.

Otherwise, nearly every other NSA program is intact. Since its creation, the NSA has frequently been found to conduct unlawful interceptions of communication. The number of data surveillance programs it maintains are numerous and widespread.

No doubt months ago the NSA prepared for an alteration of the cellphone bulk data program and has already figured out now to get what it needs through other programs. The Onion nailed it, as usual: “Frustrated NSA Now Forced to Rely on Mass Surveillance Programs That Haven’t Come to Light Yet.”

You may think that multiple public revelations of illegal activity led to the cleanup or closure of NSA programs. You would be wrong. In fact, all of the revelations that were found to be illegal were then declared by the U.S. Congress to be legal after the fact. That’s no victory for freedom lovers.

We Americans pride ourselves in our freedoms — yet paradoxically, we seem incredibly willing to give them up. We live in an age when our travels are tracked, documented, and saved to a database by millions of cameras in nearly every country.

I can’t understand why any American puts up with the weakening of our Constitutional rights, particularly the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. I don’t understand why any American can be drug tested to obtain or maintain employment, without reasonable suspicion or evidence that they are doing drugs or alcohol on the job or that it impacts the function they perform.

Why does the government still track $10,000 transactions? The $10,000 amount was set in 1970 (with the passage of the Bank Secrecy Act) and has not been raised in more than 45 years. That would amount to $62,000-plus today, calculated using a 4.5 percent inflation figure. It’s crazy that anyone can be arrested for refusing to tell the government about his or her personal, legal transactions.

The NSA can still monitor and collect anything it wants from the Internet. That’s far more valuable than cellphone metadata. As detailed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the NSA still has a host of options for collecting data, including pen registers, FISA, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, National Security Letters, and multiple levels of subpoenas. Of course, these are only the programs and tactics we know about.

Keep in mind I’m ignoring the FBI, which recently came under renewed criticism for flying surveillance planes over cities. Other law enforcement agencies routinely eavesdrop on our cellphone calls using fake tower devices known as “stingrays.” In most jurisdictions, it can do so without a warrant.

If you want to know how badly our privacy — especially digital privacy — is being eroded, the Electronic Privacy Information Center lists all the ways. My personal favorite threats are the numerous Fusion Centers, which attempt to collect all sorts of public, corporate, and sleuthed information in one place. They know what you’ve bought using your credit cards, what grades you made in high school and college, and what preschool your kids attend. The reach is incredible.

I addressed our privacy loss when discussing Bruce Schneier’s latest book. There are so many entities, starting with the NSA and the federal government, that know a shocking amount about you and your family.

Many friends and family members who hear my privacy diatribes shrug off the details of these intrusions. “I’m a law-abiding citizen and it doesn’t inconvenience me,” they often say. In other words, many of us are complicit in the demise of our right to privacy.

The purpose of this rant is to ensure no one is under the illusion that the quick passage of the USA Freedom Act actually did anything to guarantee the average citizen more freedom or privacy. That train has left the station. If that doesn’t bother you, I doubt we will ever regain basic, guaranteed privacy and protection against unreasonable search and seizure.


Roger A. Grimes is a contributing editor. Roger holds more than 40 computer certifications and has authored ten books on computer security. He has been fighting malware and malicious hackers since 1987, beginning with disassembling early DOS viruses. He specializes in protecting host computers from hackers and malware, and consults to companies from the Fortune 100 to small businesses. A frequent industry speaker and educator, Roger currently works for KnowBe4 as the Data-Driven Defense Evangelist and is the author of Cryptography Apocalypse.

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