One small (very small) Step for America. The USA FREEDOM Act.

The 2001 bill named United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, also known as the USA PATRIOT Act, failed to get extended for another four years on June first. Activists and those concerned about their privacy, like myself, hailed this as a win. This marks the first time in 30 years that congress has placed any tangible leash on the NSA. The Patriot Act had been running rampant and growing in power since it was first hastily passed in 2001. For years, activists and privacy hawks have been fighting against the mass surveillance and collection of American’s communications, section 215 being the main target. Even the author of the bill himself, James Sensenbrenner, during a congressional hearing said,

I can say that, without qualification, congress never did intend to allow bulk collection… and no fair reading would allow this program.

After the failure of the Patriot Act to pass, on June 2nd, a replacement bill, the USA FREEDOM Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet collection, and Online Monitoring) passed.

Another Crafty Name, but is the Freedom Act any Better?

Slightly. Although it boasts another promising name and replaces the disappoint that was the Patriot Act, the Freedom Act it is only marginally better.  It only addresses three of the provisions of section 215, two of which have barely been used. It mainly affects telephone metadata. Telephone companies like AT&T will now be responsible for holding records, only releasing specific data requested by the government. Furthermore, companies are not required to hold records for longer than the already standard 18 months, as compared to the five years that the NSA was able to hold records. However, according to Japan Times…

Programs like Gumfish, through which NSA agents turn on Americans’ computer cameras to spy on them at their homes — and take photos of them nude and/or while having sex — are unaffected. So will programs like Mystic, which records and stores the voice recordings of your calls for at least five years.

You Win Some You Lose Some

Some key amendments that would have really strengthened the Freedom Act failed in the House Judiciary Committee. They include allowing a public advocacy panel, allowing companies to be more transparent and tell their customers about government inquires, and providing for whistle blower protection. But amendments that were proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would have rendered the Freedom Act completely useless also failed. Those amendments included one that would extend the enforcement of the Freedom Act to a year and another that would have significantly weakened the Director of National Intelligence’s power.

Not out of the woods, yet

Big names like Google, Apple, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation still remain concerned, and for good reason, that the USA Freedom Act, does not provide for the end of mass surveillance. First, the NSA won’t be forced to follow new rules made by the Freedom Act for six months. Although the collection of massive amounts of metadata is now taken out out of the hands of the government, they are still able to systematically access the information.  And, like a parent that never says no, the NSA will not have any problems getting approval from the FISA court. Furthermore, the depressing section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act that also allow for mass collection doesn’t sunset until 2017.

So for now, you better keep your trusty LiquidVPN service close to your heart. There is still no end in sight for mass surveillance. If only Congress was as creative with protecting Americans’ rights as they are at naming bills.


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