Defying all logic, both Senators Thune and Rounds voted to renew the Patriot Act as is without changes. The Patriot Act was set to sunset on June 1st, 2015. Though the Patriot Act had been renewed in the past, this time was different. In May 2013, Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents to several journalists which shed light on how the Patriot Act was being actually being used. One of the most startling revelations was that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting the phone records of virtually every American on a daily basis. This gave rise to a number of developments:
A coalition of 25 various organizations led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently graded elected officials in Washington, D.C. on the extent to which they are pushing for real surveillance reform. From the coalition’s website:
We are calling on the United States government to:
- Pass strong legislative reform to outlaw mass surveillance, including phone record surveillance and Internet surveillance. This must include a recognition of the privacy rights of non-US citizens.
- Reform the FISA court, the secret court that signs off on the NSA’s secret surveillance. FISA court reform includes transparency into any significant or new legal interpretations made by court and ensuring a well-resourced public advocate is in place to argue for privacy rights within the court and seek further review.
- Prohibit the NSA from undermining international encryption technologies and standards and hacking into technology companies.
- Promote transparency, publish transparency reports, and also give companies rights to publish granular accounts about how companies cooperate with bulk surveillance efforts and the number of user accounts that are affected.
Congress hasn’t acted on all of these issues recently, so I’d think of it as more of a mid-term report card. The methodology for the report card can be seen at the coalition’s web site. The Senate hasn’t voted on any related measures, so neither Sen. Thune and Sen. Johnson were graded.
Rep. Noem voted “YES” to the Sensenbrenner-Massie-Lofgren Amendment to Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2015. The measure passed with bi-partisan support (293-123). The amendment prohibits the use of funding for backdoor searches of Americans’ communications without a warrant. It also prohibits the use of funding for the NSA to mandate or request that private companies and organizations add backdoors to the encryption standards that are meant to keep you safe on the web. Here is the actual text of the amendment:
Much has been said about metadata since the revelation this year of a NSA (National Security Agency) program that collects the telephone metadata of every American.
Many in Congress believe that metadata collection is not surveillance because it does not include the content of telephone calls. The truth is that the NSA’s metadata collection programs and subsequent analysis are surveillance. And for ordinary Americans, it may be the greatest invasion of privacy we’ve ever experienced.
Metadata is the set of information that describes something else. For a cell phone call, it includes the name, number, time, duration, and location for both the sender and recipient.
The Amash-Conyers amendment to the 2014 Defense Appropriations Bill is the first legislative attempt to reign in the NSA’s bulk surveillance of Americans since the surveillance was first revealed in June. According to Wikipedia, the amendment:
- “sought to bar the NSA and other agencies from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect records”, thereby ending the mass surveillance of Americans. Instead, it permitted “the FISA court under Sec. 215 to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation”.
- would have permitted the continued use of business records and other “tangible things” if the data were “actually related to an authorized counter-terrorism investigation”.
- would have required judicial oversight with “a substantive, statutory standard to apply to make sure the NSA does not violate Americans’ civil liberties”.
The amendment lost by a vote of 217 to 205 with each party split on the issue. I wrote to Rep. Noem regarding her vote, and in her response she stated that “while I believe the Amash amendment went too far, I am in full support of further safeguarding our right to privacy and clearly drawing the line for federal agencies at the doorstep of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.”