A regulation abused by U.S. authorities in order to enable mass surveillance into American lives will expire by the end of May. Will it be reauthorized by the U.S. Congress, and if not, what will replace it?
The regulation in question is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, adopted weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to the Act, the U.S government can gather telephone data essential to national security. Two years ago, Edward Snowden, a fugitive U.S. intelligence analyst, revealed that Barack Obama’s administration allowed a very broad interpretation of Section 215 to enable the gathering of data of ALL telephone conversations across the U.S.
Every time a phone call is made, information about the caller’s number, as well as the time and place of the phone call — established by the connection cell phones need to make with their network’s nearest transmitter to facilitate the phone call — is collected by the NSA (National Security Agency). However, the actual conversations are not recorded, as both George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed that it would invade American citizens’ privacy too much.
Snowden, who escaped from the U.S. and was granted asylum in Russia, revealed to journalists of The Guardian that a secret court order was imposed on Verizon, one of the United States’ four largest cell phone networks, to disclose all telephone call data to the government. It is almost certain that similar court orders would have been issued to the other cell phone networks.
Snowden’s view was that even without recording the actual phone calls, American freedom had been compromised. Snowden claimed that citizens should have at least been made aware of the degree of government intrusion into their lives, which would give them a chance to agree to it. That never happened because the operation was secret and the government did not clarify how Section 215 would be interpreted.
On May 7, the New York Court of Appeals passed a verdict that in fact agreed with Snowden’s view. The verdict provided a certain consolation and moral victory to the fugitive, who remains charged with espionage by U.S. prosecution. Obama stated that Snowden is not a patriot and the theft of classified documentation was harmful and unnecessary because the mass surveillance methods would have eventually been revised by the government.
The New York Court jury consisted of three members, who unanimously decided that the government had no right to allow such broad interpretation of Section 215 — that data essential to national security meant all data. The court decided that such an unprecedented and so deeply intrusive program should be clearly and unambiguously accepted by Congress in order to be legally ratified. Therefore, Congress should authorize an act that will explicitly allow the government to gather all telephone call data if the program is to be continued.
Although the court agreed that collecting all data is illegal, it has not called for the government to stop collecting it. The reason for it is that Section 215 expires in the end of May and Congress is currently working on an act that would replace it.
Some Republicans would be happy to reauthorize Section 215 without implementing any changes, but it is rather unlikely, considering the court verdict. The Obama administration proposes that the data not be kept in government databases, but simply stay with cell phone network companies. If the government (FBI, CIA, prosecutor’s office etc.) has suspicions about a particular American citizen, it will issue a request to the network company to hand over the phone call data of that citizen and any persons associated with them.
This proposition has been backed by Democrats and those Republicans who consider themselves Libertarians, which means that their main focus is citizens’ rights. Such a left-wing and extreme right-wing coalition is somewhat exotic, but it will probably achieve the majority needed for the act to pass.
The entire discussion refers to U.S. citizens’ rights only. As far as foreigners are concerned, American intelligence gives itself the right to do what it wants, e.g., record conversations or read emails. That is legal and unlikely to change, due to the fact that America considers foreigners an inferior category of people and their right to privacy as not deserving of respect. Foreign rights and freedoms should be protected by foreign governments.
Snowden’s position has not changed either — if he went back to the U.S., he would be tried for espionage and he would very likely receive a long prison sentence.