Senator Ron Wyden speaking at an unrelated hearing, via his Senate page
What a time to hold a privacy awards ceremony.
Just days before one of the largest classified information leaks in United States history, the Electronic Privacy Information Center held its annual dinner June 3 in Washington, DC, honoring a slew of people who fight for government transparency and more privacy rights. The two most outspoken senators on the issue, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ken.), both were both honored as “Champions of Freedom,” and their award acceptance speeches proved equal parts prescient and naive.
Let's travel back in time for a second to remind you guys the state of the world last Monday: the Guardian and Washington Post hadn't yet published their bombshell accounts of National Security Administration information gathering from Verizon and a slew of other tech companies. Instead, everything was just peachy, with the Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement could take DNA swabs from anyone who's been arrested and the Department of Justice snooping on Associated Press phone calls for a couple of months.
Wyden and Paul knew what notes to hit with their speeches. Wyden, one of only 10 senators to vote against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2006, said, "Every time there is an attack, a tragedy, it becomes a reason for some to argue that Americans must sacrifice liberty for security. Here in this room—one of the reasons I'm so honored to be with you—we believe that liberty and security in America are not mutually exclusive."
"We believe it's possible to fight terrorism relentlessly and ferociously without throwing our liberties overboard. I especially want to offer up the thought that when you really get into these issues, what you'll find is some of the best security practices in America come about through openness and not through obscurity," Wyden added.
No one in the room had any delusion that the NSA or federal government had been completely forthcoming about its surveillance—the Electronic Frontier Foundation had been seeking the FISA court documents obtained by the Guardian since 2006, but I don't think anyone with EPIC was expecting a leak of this size less than 36 hours after the group's biggest annual event.
It's hard to tell what Wyden would have said if he'd given the speech 36 hours later, after Glenn Greenwald started a national shitstorm. But in the days following the leak, Wyden’s been a pain in the Obama administration's side, calling the president out on PRISM and claiming he was lied to by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper when he asked about the NSA's information gathering programs. He has since called for public hearings to address the NSA revelations.
“One of the most important responsibilities a senator has is oversight of the intelligence community,” Wyden said earlier this week. “This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”
Paul's speech also hit most of the same notes, saying that the government needs better third-party records protections (hello, Verizon calls) and blasting the FBI for claiming that any emails that were sent or received at least six months ago are fair game without a warrant.
"The great rhetorical way of putting this is 'Gosh, shouldn't your email be treated in the same way as a letter that you get in the mail,'" he said. And regarding third party records, he said, "We say that once someone else has your records, you don't need a search warrant because you've given up your right to privacy. I say, 'Hell no, I haven't, I'm just stuck in a digital age and all my information is out there.'"
Since the leaks, Paul has said he’s going to try to sue the government, and he’s said he’s reserving judgment on whether leaker Edward Snowden is a traitor or not. (His dad, for the record, thinks the government is going to try to kill Snowden “with a cruise missile or a drone missile.”)
But Rand might wish he could take back the part of his speech where said “I think freedom and privacy are on the rise,” or the part where he praised Facebook and Google's privacy protections.
"I don't want to have everyone think Google and Facebook are bad people. I just was out there meeting with them and I'll tell you, particularly with the email thing—[the government] does not need a warrant to look at your email over 6 months old, that's the law of the land—but Facebook, eBay and Google, the word I get is they're going one step beyond … they're asking the government for search warrants and the government is complying with this," Paul said.
We still don’t know how complicit tech companies were in passing users’ information onto the government. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft just asked for permission to disclose more information about classified info requests from the government, which will hopefully shed light on what exactly the NSA was grabbing.
Paul and Wyden’s comments seem like preemptive strikes about disclosures that shocked the average American but were inevitable to anyone who’s been paying attention to the privacy scene. Recent polls suggest lots of us don’t care, anyway.