Plenty of thoughtful analysis has been done on the NSA Reform bill (USA FREEDOM Act) that died in the Senate this Tuesday after receiving only 58 of the 60 votes it needed to advance. Rand Paul (R-KY), a libertarian champion of privacy, voted “nay” because he thought the bill didn’t go far enough in curbing the NSA’s metadata dragnet, while Mitch McConnell (R-KY) led all other GOP reps in voting “nay” because apparently ISIS will come and kill everybody if mass surveillance ceases. Almost all Democrats voted for the bill, which was sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
Organizations like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) backed the bill, even though the White House and the GOP worked quite hard to dilute the original version (introduced in January 2014) into its latest form. Supporters cited that the bill would be a net-positive for privacy advocates, as it would have shifted Americans’ phone records from the NSA to private telecoms by stopping the direct collection of American phone records (as allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act). But critics like blogger/commentator Marcy Wheeler (Empty Wheel) says that much of the “reforms” remain ambiguous language-wise and are even hampered by the Democrats’ (especially Diane Feinstein) effort to help accommodate intelligence agencies’ concerns with the bill (though something she calls the “data handshake”).
Regardless, institutional change hardly ever comes from within, as noted by national security expert Glenn Greenwald, and the bill only touched on how phone records are collected/kept by the NSA and telecoms. That’s a pretty limited focus, and real change to the surveillance state will necessitate a popular response that affects the corporate world. This is an area where supporter of Edward Snowden and privacy can draw some positives, regardless of what happens in the limited political machinations of the US Congress. In other words, those who say that the defeat of this bill reflects people’s support for draconian surveillance/policing are wrong.
Snowden said that his goal was to spark a global debate on whether mass NSA surveillance and the collection of metadata should be something that a liberal democracy should condone. In that he has certainly succeeded. The leaks became one of (if not the) most talked-about stories of 2013 and beyond. Its subsequent effects also include a huge shift in public opinion regarding how a state should balance security and privacy: a USA Today/Pew poll shows that appx. 70% of Americans don’t want to sacrifice their privacy/freedom in order to be secure. About 90% of those surveyed also feel that Americans have lost control of their personal information.
This state of public skepticism has led to companies like Apple and Google to incorporate encryption methods into some of their latest products, much to the chagrin of intel agencies like the NSA or the UK’s GCHQ. These companies aren’t necessarily taking a stand against mass surveillance, but they’re certainly worried about losing customers who care about their privacy. Online traffic is also a bit more encrypted now, as more and more people begin to use encryption software (or communication services that have built in encryption capabilities). Given the amount of people engaged in protecting their online and offline privacy, which is a function of the “Snowden Effect” and its impact, arguments that depict privacy advocates as those who have “something to hide” fall apart.
Brazil, whose citizens were also being surveilled, and whose industries were subject to a series of NSA economic spying efforts, is building a $185 million dollar undersea network with fibre-optic cables to evade US mass surveillance. It, along with Germany (whose Chancellor Angela Merkel had her phone tapped), is leading the international push for the UN to be tougher on international digital spying.
In other words, though the structural problems haven’t been fixed, the notion that people don’t care about privacy anymore is false. The US national security apparatus’ main goal is the elimination of all the privacy they encounter in the world. The objective is to know everything at all times. This scheme runs up against a major aspect of human behaviour, which entails the need for private space, where creativity, character formation, dissent, etc. take place, and the elimination of which will alter the fundamental form of our societies.
[Photo credit: Stefanie Wildner]