USA FREEDOM Act stalls

Last evening the Senate voted 58-42 to delay implementation of the USA FREEDOM Act with the goal of reforming, albeit modestly, America's controversial domestic surveillance programs.

Despite strong support from the technology industry, rare endorsements by both the Washington Post and New York Times editorial boards, and affirmative votes from all but one Democratic senator, the measure failed.  That's not terribly surprising since practically any attempt to reform, revise, and/or reign in US domestic surveillance in recent years has been met with a tirade of sensational fearmongering, threat inflation (or conflation), and worst-case adverse possibilities being presented as most-likely adverse probabilities by surveillance apologists --- a joint op-ed this week by former NSA Director Michael Hayden and Attorney General Michael Mukasey is one such example, as was FBI director Comey's recent suggestion that "a child might die" if the US government can't mandate weakened encryption on electronic communications to make them easier to monitor.

Last night's Senate debate was the type of showmanship we're used to seeing on this issue: in a speech reminiscent of ones made by the fictitious Senator John Iselin, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia emphatically repeated the claim that "only 22 people" have access" to NSA's collected data -- but that's a number subject to change without notice at any time, though.  Maine's Susan Collins implied that domestic surveillance may have helped stop the 9/11 attacks, repeating an oft-cited but debunked, theory.  Remarks by Marco Rubio of Florida (and others) suggested that ISIS will roam freely throughout America if domestic communications aren't monitored by the government. 

I suspect the USA FREEDOM Act's best days are behind it now; looking at the incoming leadership and composition of both House and Senate intelligence and Judiciary committees in the next Congress, I doubt we're going to see anything but sustainment of the status quo or the expanded infringements on civil liberties under the guise of "protecting the homeland." That scenario will play out next spring during debates over whether or not to allow the continuation of phone record collections under the so-called USA PATROT Act. 

Unfortunately reforming US domestic surveillance effectively requires a shift in how Congress functions viz-a-viz its own job security.  No politician wants to be on public record for voting against a "tool" that may help prevent another incident, especially if such an incident takes place.  So they continue to support various controversial "tools" to avoid looking weak on security issues when constantly seeking re-election, and as a result, this quagmire continues.  (That's a muted argument for term limits, by the way.)

In light of the renewed Crypto Wars, it is more important than ever to ensure that proper and meaningful oversight of state-sponsored surveillance occurs.  Unfortunately, the many attempts to bring such oversight and accountability to bear upon domestic surveillance apparatus brings to mind the adage about how the capabilities of a state, once obtained, are not easily relinquished or restricted.  Put another way, don't look to Congress to enhance your privacy -- look to technology that you can control, use, and embrace that does respect and safeguard your privacy.

On these issues, our external vigilance and objective public discussions must continue.

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