Why compromise could be bad for online privacy
The USA Freedom Act was recently passed with the intention of addressing online surveillance in the United States, but some feel that changes to the bill could ultimately hurt only privacy in the long run.
When it comes to online activity, we are tracked in more ways than we might think. When Amazon shows you what other customers have purchased because of a product you recently looked at, it is able to do so because it has collected information about you and other users who visit the website.
As an isolated act, this is a relatively harmless act of data collection. In fact, you may find it useful given that it was able to aid you in your purchasing decision. However, when an organization is collecting more personal information than what you bought during the holiday season, or is using it in a more invasive way, issues arise when it comes to personal privacy.
The Snowden affair
These issues came to a boil when Edward Snowden released documents revealing just how extensively the National Security Administration could collect and investigate data and metadata about American citizens. While Snowden went into exile, being treated as a spy by the government, U.S. citizens and law makers alike sought to make sense of these revelations, which ultimately led to outrage at such programs.
As a result, the government sought to reform its surveillance and security policies. These efforts recently came to fruition on May 22 as the U.S. house passed the USA Freedom Act. This was one of only a few pieces of reform that was backed with bipartisan support. But this does not mean that the legislation is without its problems. In fact, many feel that this rare occurrence of collaboration between both parties and the White House could be a major reason why this recent piece of reform will not be effective in regulating online surveillance.
Watering down the legislation?
The Index on Censorship reported that while sponsors of the bill believe this will put an end to the eavesdropping and online monitoring activities of the NSA, others are far more skeptical. The bill's main author was Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wi.), who also played an important role in the Patriot Act, which allowed the NSA to implement the kind of policies that Snowden leaked.
One of the bill's major criticisms is that it is deliberately vague when it comes to the kind of content that the NSA can still intercept. The Index noted that the NSA can monitor "specific selection terms" which are "used to uniquely describe a person, entity or account." This could mean almost anything. The reforms also fail to address many of the NSA programs that Snowden leaked, such as PRISM.
"This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans' private information," said Nuala O'Connor, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, according to the news source. "The bill now offers only mild reform and goes against the overwhelming support for definitively ending bulk collection."
The problem with ambiguity
The CDT is an organization aimed at enabling the power of the Internet to support human rights and free expression. The group noted that this ambiguity is a problem given the government's track record of improperly using it.
It points to the Patriot Act, where the phrase "relevant to an investigation" enabled the NSA to collect bulk phone and email records in the first place.
Ultimately, true reform needs to come in making more direct changes to legislation. While the ends of the Freedom Act are still unclear, many feel that they could ultimately silence the online privacy discussion in the future.