After a two-day break, the U.S. government will again gather data on millions of Americans’ phone calls — it became possible thanks to a vote in the Senate, but in six months, the big “phone call vacuuming” will come to an end.
On Sunday, the senators gave America to the terrorists for devouring, but on Tuesday they rescued it. That is the conclusion that could be reached if the hysteria that emerged around the so-called Patriot Act was to be taken seriously.
Pursuant to the act, the NSA was recording millions of Americans’ phone calls in their voluminous databases — the duration of all conversations, telephone numbers, and locations in which the persons were present during calls (though the conversations themselves were not recorded, at least not on a mass scale). The biggest mobile services were forced to pass this information on to the government in bulk, under secret orders from Washington.
At midnight on Sunday, section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allowed for the “phone vacuuming” in the framework of the “war on terror,” was set to expire. Though a few weeks ago the House of Representatives voted for an “update” (the Freedom Act) that was supposed to prevent this, the Senate delayed confirmation of the act until the last minute. The main cause of the holdup was Senator Mitch McConnell, majority leader in the Senate, who reckoned that simply upholding section 215 would be enough.
McConnell dislikes the Freedom Act, as it seriously limits the powers of the NSA. It states, though, that intelligence services will no longer have the right to gather data about phone calls in bulk and keep it in their databases. It will remain in the archives of mobile services. If the NSA needs to “scan” any particular suspect, they will only be given that individual’s history of phone calls.
There Will Be No Inspections, Especially Unjustified Ones
The American debate about mass surveillance has been going on since May 2013, when former NSA employee Edward Snowden escaped the country and revealed it. Human rights defenders were alarmed that the government was violating the constitution, which in the fourth amendment forbids "unlawful search and seizure." Gathering data about millions of citizens who are not suspected of any crime is, according to them, "unlawful search." The government's argument against that was that the data is only gathered "passively" and is not looked into, so there is no “search,” especially an "unlawful" one. Only when a particular citizen is suspected of committing a crime does the NSA look into their databases and examine the history of that person’s phone calls.
In May, the New York Court of Appeals admitted that the human rights defenders were right, but did not order the NSA to stop the "phone call vacuuming." The Obama government has already advocated for the Patriot Act, and it was outvoted in the House by a vast cross-party majority (338 votes for, 88 against).
Only Senator McConnell (backed by a small group of Republican hawks) insisted that the Patriot Act would unnecessarily weaken the U.S in the battle against terrorism. To force his standpoint through, he decided to play hardball. He convened the Senate on Sunday evening, just a few hours before the expiration of section 215. He hoped his opponents would not dare to stop the NSA's anti-terrorist actions, and would break mentally and vote to extend the Patriot Act without any changes.
Turning Off the ‘Phone Call Vacuum’
In late hours everything seemed to be going according to McConnell's cunning plan. The NSA warned that it is preparing to end its collection of phone calls. Barack Obama warned that this would endanger the country's safety. "I would not want a terrorist attack to occur which could have been otherwise prevented if not for the inactivity of senators," he said.
Unfortunately, McConnell underestimated his colleague, Senator Rand Paul — they both represent the state of Kentucky — who promised to "singlehandedly stop Big Brother." On Sunday evening, when it was already too late to extend the Patriot Act and only the Freedom Act could be accepted, to ensure the continuity of the NSA's "vacuum's" work, Senator Paul used a gap in the procedures and kept his promise (the agreement of all senators present in the hall was needed to immediately proceed with voting, but Paul imposed a veto).
McConnell, who bluffed with “weak cards” and hoped to hit the jackpot, was mercilessly checked and exposed.
Therefore, on Monday morning the Americans — for the first time in nine years — woke up in a country that was not listening to their phone calls. The satirist Jon Stewart ironically remarked that despite the forecasts, terrorists did not proceed with the attack. He also reminded that even with the so-called “indispensable” NSA’s vacuum at work, a few terror attempts took place, including the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
The balloon has popped. McConnell decided, though not without distaste, to “pick the lesser evil” and back the Freedom Act. On Tuesday the Senate passed it (67 for, 32 against) and sent it back to Obama, who immediately signed it. Thanks to that, the NSA can once again turn on the “phone call vacuum”; the Freedom Act includes a six-month interim period, during which electronic intelligence and mobile services will operate according to the old regulations (to prepare for the new regulations).
After the acceptance of the Freedom Act, a few unknown factors remain. Firstly, it is not known what the NSA will do with data they already gathered; they will most likely keep it. Secondly, we do not know what the big mobile service providers will do after six months — though the NSA, under court order, will be allowed to demand a person’s phone call history, the mobile services can respond that they do not keep those records and therefore do not have it.
U.S. Citizens Cannot Feel Safe. Is “Big Brother” Watching?
The problem of other mass surveillance programs that were revealed by Snowden, and others who followed in his footsteps, remains unresolved. Theoretically, U.S. citizens have the protection of their constitution, unlike foreigners, whom the NSA can eavesdrop on, peep and record as much as they like, and without any legal restrictions. John Napier Tye, who has worked in the State Department as the head of the Internet freedom division, has written in the Washington Post that Americans — even after the expiration of section 215 — also cannot feel safe. “Big Brother” might still be watching.
According to Tye, a potential threat is presented by executive order no. 12333, issued by Ronald Reagan. Under that regulation, data about U.S. citizens can be gathered if it is “accidentally” intercepted by American intelligence abroad. Considering that websites such as Google or Yahoo! have backup servers abroad, on which mail services for their U.S. users are kept, it is not difficult to imagine the NSA breaking into these foreign servers and “vacuuming” all the e-mails — and with Google and Yahoo! being used by the entire world, it is safe to interpret as Americans’ e-mails kept on these backup servers being taken “accidentally.”
*Editor's Note: The quotations in this article, accurately translated, could not be verified.