Following this week’s clear-cut vote in the House of Representatives it seems likely that, despite resistance in the Senate, Congress will outlaw the collection of bulk phone data by the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s equivalent (and close partner) of Britain’s GCHQ.
This step has been on the cards since the disclosure by Edward Snowden of the NSA’s “metadata” programme in 2013. Pressure, however, has been increased by last week’s ruling by a federal appeals court that the programme was illegal – but which left it up to Congress, rather than the judiciary, to remedy matters.
In the meantime a key deadline looms. Parts of the Patriot Act, passed in the weeks after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, will expire on 1 June. These include the act’s Section 215, which the NSA has used as justification to gather information on the phone calls Americans make, under the catch-all clause that such data is “relevant to an authorised investigation”. Some Republican defence hawks argue that the scheme should remain in force – even though there is no public evidence it has prevented a single terrorist incident. Trust us, runs the familiar refrain from the intelligence community; the vacuuming-up of data has produced results but for national-security reasons we can’t tell you what they are. Now even the White House wants the act to be changed.
In fact, the new House version will not end all forms of metadata collection. The difference is that records will be kept by the phone companies and the NSA will have access to them on a case-by-case basis, rather than in bulk. That is still a significant step. In a democratic society, striking the proper balance between the demands of national security and the individual’s right to privacy will always be a contentious issue. But the “Big Brother” surveillance that US politicians unwittingly made possible in 2001 was an unacceptable violation of that privacy.Reuse content