Protestors at the Stop Watching Us rally in Washington DC this Saturday, by Jason Koebler
It’s been about four months since Edward Snowden’s leaks on the NSA’s blanket surveillance programs outraged privacy and Internet activists the world over, spawning real-life protests, online petitions, and high quality parody videos. Some countries got so mad, they even talked of leaving the US-run Internet. Now, the policy may actually change. Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner will introduce an anti-NSA bill tomorrow in the House, and if it makes its winding way to becoming law, it will be a big step towards curtailing the NSA's bulk metadata collection.
Wisconsin Rep. Sensenbrenner, along with 60 co-sponsors, aims to amend one section of the Patriot Act, Section 215, in a bill known as the United and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet Collection, and Online Monitoring Act—also known by its less-clunky acronym version, the USA Freedom Act.
Section 215 has been used by the Bush and Obama administrations as justification for broad spying activities. Rep. Sensenbrenner—who actually authored the Patriot Act—likened these blanketed spying activities to abuse. "The NSA has gone far beyond the intent of the Patriot Act, particularly in the accumulation and storage of metadata," said Sensenbrenner in an interview with National Journal about the bill earlier this month. "Had Congress known that the Patriot Act had been used to collect metadata, the bill would have never been passed" as a response to the September 11th attacks.
According to the Guardian, who saw a draft of the USA Freedom Act, Section 215 would be worded so surveillance could only be done on judge-approved “specific suspects”—essentially meaning no more bulk data collection. The USA Freedom Act would also allow Internet and phone companies to report on these judge-approved surveillance targets and prevent the government from using loopholes to rebuild “its metadata dragnet using different authorities.”
Rep. Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act comes amidst growing anti-NSA sentiments both in the United States and abroad. Friday’s NSA website outage was gleefully mocked on social media, and Saturday saw thousands taking part in the Stop Watching Us protest in Washington DC. At a sister protest in Chicago, Restore the Fourth organizer and twice deployed Army Signals Intelligence analyst Laura Jedeed gave a rousing speech on the Fourth Amendment and the right to privacy:
“I helped use some of the same technologies mentioned in Mr. Snowden’s reports against the Taliban in Afghanistan. These technologies are weapons of war, designed for and intended for fighting our enemies abroad. The United States Government should not be at war with the people within its borders, the people it exists to protect. We cannot tolerate these informational weapons of war to be pointed at and used on people in this country, at home, without suspicion or probable cause, as a matter of course!”
Jedeed also couldn’t help noting the “libertarians, socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, and communists” at the protest, a political diversity also seen at the Washington DC protest. This hatred of the NSA and desire to defend the Fourth Amendment has extended beyond party lines, as has support for the USA Freedom Act.
In fact, the USA Freedom Act has converted six congressmen as cosponsors who voted against defunding the NSA in July, via the Amash-Conyers Amendment, which lost by 12 votes. One of those congressmen voting no in July was Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois. Two members of Chicago’s Restore the Fourth chapter met with Rep. Quigley the day before he became the 60th cosponsor of the USA Freedom Act.
“We are extremely happy about Rep. Quigley's change of heart and his support of Fourth Amendment rights” wrote Jedeed in an email. Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan who co-wrote the Amash-Conyers Amendment, also supports the USA Freedom Act. Two congressmen who didn’t vote for Rep. Amash’s bill are co-sponsoring the USA Freedom Act as well. With those added votes, the bill may pass the House by a slim margin. From there, however, it's unclear how the Senate may receive the bill, or whether or not President Obama would veto such a bill if it arrived on his desk.
If the USA Freedom Act doesn’t pass after it is introduced this week, there are still 12 other pending bills taking aim at the NSA, including another by Rep. Amash that also wants to rewrite Section 215 of the Patriot Act. One bill or another, Congress finally appears ready to curtail the NSA’s civilian spying program.