On Tuesday November 18, the US senate voted against a new bill that would have restricted some of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial surveillance activity. The USA Freedom Act received only 58 of the 60 votes required for it to move forward.
The purpose of the bill, which was introduced last year, was to rein in the bulk collection of data by the NSA and other government agencies and allow greater transparency for Internet and telecom companies in disclosing to the public the number and types of requests they receive from the government for customer data.
Under the bill the NSA would have been required to obtain court orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to gain access to records from telecoms companies and it would also have required the agency to use specific search terms to narrow its access to relevant records. Internet and telecom companies would be allowed to publicly report an estimate of the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders and national security letters received, the number of such orders and letters complied with, and the number of users or accounts on whom information was demanded under the orders and letters.
The NSA’s bulk collection program was primarily exposed in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The information released about NSA activities is among the most significant leaks in American history.
Currently living in in exile in Russia, Snowden remains a polarising figure and people in his own government have talked of imprisonment or death as retribution for his actions. However others see him as a whistle-blower, patriot, and hero.
The leaked documents exposed numerous global surveillance programs, many of them run by the US’s NSA along with four other countries, with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments.
Snowden’s actions sparked a worldwide discussion on privacy and the responsibilities of governments. It also raised questions about the misdoings of governments, particularly that of the United States. The “Snowden Effect” has caused drastic changes in people’s use of the Internet and their trust in government and tech companies.
In a video interview with The Guardian, Snowden explained his actions saying, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things, I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded, my sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
In the online publication The Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first revealed the Snowden revelations, said the bill was irrelevant and too narrow, “it sought to change only one small sliver of NSA mass surveillance (domestic bulk collection of phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act) while leaving completely unchanged the primary means of NSA mass surveillance, which takes place under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.” He said the bill focused on the theory that all that matters are the privacy rights of Americans and ignores the rights of non-Americans.
In the UK there has been very little debate over surveillance and a lack of mainstream media interest. Many British citizens remain unaware of the extent of surveillance taking place in the UK.
During the ‘Observer Ideas’ festival organized by The Guardian Edward Snowden warned that Britain’s GCHQ spy agency is a bigger threat to privacy than the NSA because the UK is does not have constitutional protection, “In the United Kingdom, where you don’t have the same kind of constitutional limits on the sort of laws the parliament can pass, what we’ve seen is the creation of a system of regulations where basically anything goes.”