Some years ago, a brilliant cartoon showed the logo of the National Security Agency with a surprising false slogan. The slogan read, “NSA, the only part of government that actually listens.”
There were 67 votes in favor overcoming the 32 against passage of the USA Freedom Act, the measure triggered by Edward Snowden’s revelations, which revealed to the public the systematic espionage activity carried out by the NSA. The Senate ruled that the agency can still call on telephone network operators to provide information that could be traced back to its users, but it can no longer do so in an indiscriminate fashion: Any data requests must relate to specific targets or groups of people.
The measure has granted the NSA six months to complete works in progress and shut down its interception activities. In the future, intelligence agencies will no longer have absolute freedom of movement, but will only be able to act on well-grounded suspicion of terrorism.
Patrick J. Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont who has led the campaign against the excessive power of the NSA, expressed satisfaction that Congress is putting an end once and for all to the collection of information from American telephone traffic. On the other hand, supporters of the operational program of the NSA are upset, warning of a qualitative decline in its preventative activity.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has thundered against President Obama, holding him responsible for weakening U.S. security, in line with his firm opposition of the detention of alleged terrorists in the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and the failure regarding conflict with Islamic State.
Barack Obama initially defended the NSA program, but following some in-depth internal reviews which highlighted a substantial ineffectiveness and an evident illegality of the activity carried out, he then preferred to take a stand with those who believed that a rewriting of rules by Congress was essential.
Both his administration and that of George W. Bush justified the espionage program using Section 215 of the so-called Patriot Act, which gave federal investigative agencies the power to demand any information from telecommunications companies about their customers and their use of landline and mobile telephones.
McConnell tried to make a last move in defense of the NSA, asking to double the period of six months granted to the agency to adjust its procedures, and demanding that the government certify that the new rules would not jeopardize national security. He has not been able to check these off his list because many of his fellow Republicans voted in favor of the Freedom Act.
Ron Wyden, Democratic senator from Oregon, declared, “This is only the beginning. There is a lot more to do ….”
Is this the end of the era of Orwellian control? Is the latest season of “Public Enemy” drawing to an end? It’s hard to say, but the new rules are, without a doubt, an important step forward toward a genuine respect for privacy. After the government institutions, however, it should now be the turn of telecommunications giants and search engine and social network corporations, all entities which should also be feared by the unprotected citizen faced with an ever more voracious vampire-like preying on personal data.