Following the passage of the Freedom Act in June 2015, the National Security Agency (NSA) was forced to cease their bulk collection of phone metadata on Nov. 28. However, this event only marked the end of one of the programs that the NSA began under the authority of the Patriot Act after 9/11. Although many news outlets heralded this termination as a victory for anti-surveillance activists, the NSA is still legally allowed to collect citizens’ online communication histories and can continue to obtain data regarding investigations that were begun before the Freedom Act was passed.
After the bulk collection of metadata ended in November, Politico’s headline announcing the news was, “NSA Bulk Phone Snooping Program Shuts Down,” and CNN’s headline read, “NSA Ends Bulk Phone Data Collection”. What these headlines and most of the mainstream articles failed to mention was what remains in the NSA’s surveillance realm.
The Freedom Act does not address crucial aspects of the NSA’s spying capabilities. The 2008 FISA Amendments Act allows government access to and collection of citizens’ communication histories on sites such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft. Executive Order 12333 also allows for the same capabilities regarding international communication. With both, the government may collect actual content and not just metadata, which the Patriot Act allows. Even though Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows for less collection, Section 215 was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court because metadata collection can be just as harmful to citizens. Yet broader gathering programs still remain legal.
Other sections of the Patriot Act allow the government to search people’s homes without their notification, label members of activist groups as terrorists, monitor people’s emails and Internet history, put immigrants in jail indefinitely if the government suspects they might be a security threat, and share private information about citizens with the Central Intelligence Agency. These are only a few of the abilities that the Patriot Act grants the NSA.
In regards to the Freedom Act, a recently departed senior intelligence official stated, “This is hardly a major change,” in a New York Times article from May 2015. Many anti-surveillance politicians and activists also complained that not enough beneficial effects would stem from the Freedom Act.
After the passage of the Freedom Act, several senators feared that the Freedom Act would ultimately hurt the U.S. because of the perceived lessening of security. However, much of the communications data that is collected is not relevant to the safety of the U.S. “Incidental collection,” which is legal, is more common than most people think it is. According to a 2014 investigation by The Washington Post, “Ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. digital networks”
Since 9/11, the security programs on which the U.S. has spent billions of dollars “cannot claim to have thwarted an attack in nearly 14 years of existence,” according to The New York Times.
While the passage of the Freedom Act was a symbolic victory that may encourage more domestic surveillance reform in the future, it did not curtail spying nearly as much as the U.S. would need to if its citizens are to be free.
After a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the New York Times in Nov. 2015, NSA declassified documents revealed that the NSA can still access email logs; however, the bulk logs are kept with phone companies. This comes after a similar program was shut down after the revelations regarding spying in 2013.
As much as citizens need to hold the U.S. government and the NSA accountable, it is also necessary to hold the news media responsible to inform the electorate. However, many of the mainstream news media sites are controlled by corporate groups whose interest is in the money and not the careful honesty that journalism demands.
Journalism allows for a more transparent democracy, and it is a way for the people to have a check on the government. However, in recent years, mainstream journalists have not dedicated enough attention to the current surveillance situation in the U.S. While there are many talented journalists who are still covering the important issues regarding surveillance, mainstream media does not provide enough coverage due to continued surveillance.
Journalists can’t all be blamed for this shift though, as the U.S. government has made it increasingly more difficult for reporters to do their job. Ironically, with surveillance tools such as phone taps, call records, email surveillance, cameras, and more, it is harder than ever to keep a source secret, especially when the information might pertain to the government or governmental surveillance. More and more newsroom time and resources are being used on security tools so that journalists can do their rightful, First Amendment-guaranteed job.
Although the coverage of the Freedom Act has been less than satisfactory, it is not the only surveillance-related reportage that is weak. When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 with only one senator in opposition, reportage of the event was inadequate and often made the public believe that they would be safer with this Act. Then when it was time for the Patriot Act to be renewed in 2006, the media coverage was lackluster and the bill was easily passed by the Senate.
On Dec. 13, 2003, just hours after the capture of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush signed the Intelligence Authorization Act into law. The Act increased intelligence agency funding, allowed for more financial institutions to be surveilled, and gave the FBI the power to acquire without a judicial review the private records of people who are suspected of criminal activity. None of the corporate press provided coverage of the signing, and most American citizens spent the day celebrating the military achievement without even hearing about the other major event.
Although the government should not be able to surveil the people so freely, the press should be more active in making the people aware of the infringements by the NSA.