Is Congress’s Freedom Bill Just ‘Privacy Theater?’

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Glenn Greenwald, a journalist involved in publishing leaks provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, said he makes no apologies for his actions while speaking on his new book No Place to Hide, as well as the film deal he’s taken on as new ways to reach audiences. Greenwald, who helped Snowden’s warning on overreaching government power get published, used the U.K. press to do so, publishing through The Guardian.

Recently he announced another major piece of news regarding the bulk collection program, saying that a list of names of those individuals looked at by the NSA will be published online on Greenwald’s site, The Intercept. During his discussion of all this, he repeated his claims, according to The Washington Times, that while “the disclosures that we have made have been quite damaging to the reputations and the credibility of American officials who have been lying to the public and building this massive surveillance system in secret for all of these years,” in the end, “it hasn’t in any way harmed any legitimate interest of us as American citizens.”

Of course, the NSA disagrees. In March, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgettt gave a TED talk countering prior statements that no damage to national security interests had been done as a result of the leaks. “When we have foreign intelligence targets,” said Ledgett, listing human traffickers, drug traffickers, terrorists, and nuclear weapon builders as examples, “we have seen targets in terrorism, in the nation state area, in smugglers of various types, and other folks who have, because of the disclosures, moved away from our ability to have insight into what they’re doing and that effect of that is that our people who are overseas in dangerous places whether they’re diplomats, or military, and our allies who are in similar situations are at greater risks because we don’t see the threats that are coming their way.”This same disagreement has been taking place for some time — the embodiment of the classic security versus privacy argument that’s been ongoing since before 1984 and Brave New World were published. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said: “It’s always been the balance. How do we protect the American people while respecting their rights and their privacy?”

This same butting of heads over where the surveillance limits should lie has been occurring simultaneously at the policy level, reflected in Congress and the federal government. The House of Representatives recently passed the U.S.A. Freedom Bill, which demanded the removal of the NSA’s bulk collection metadata program. Thursday saw the bill easily passing with bipartisan support — a vote of 303 for (179 Republicans, 124 Democrats), 121 against, and 7 not voting. Clearly the publicity surrounding NSA activity has ramped up pressure on Congress — as has President Barack Obama, with his criticism of the program and its review.

After 9/11 the balance swung one way, and now, following Snowden’s release, the balance is either swinging back to center, or possibly going too far the other way. Some — such as Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary of policy at the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush Jr. presidency, who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this week — believe that the bill places Americans in undue risk.

It will “make Americans less safe,” wrote Baker. “The bulk collection program it abolishes grew from a very real failure. And for what? Protecting the ‘privacy’ of metadata that law enforcement officials have routinely collected for close to a hundred years — recently at a rate exceeding one million subpoenas a year?” 

While Baker may call it “privacy theater,” others say it doesn’t go far enough. The bill disallows the storage of bulk phone record metadata, meaning the intelligence community will be required to gain a subpoena to access such information from phone companies. Still, some who originally supported the bill ultimately voted against it, saying that the measures taken would not do enough to curb NSA privacy violations. “If we leave any ambiguity at all, we have learned that the intelligence community will drive a truck through that ambiguity,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to The Washington Post.

Lofgren claims that ambiguity is just what this latest bill risks. She and others in Congress are concerned that language under which the intelligence community appeals to phone companies for information, called “selector terms,” would be too broad. The broader the terms, the more likely the NSA can pull in large bundles of data, as opposed to narrowly tailored terms that would be more limiting, per Lofgren. “This is not the bill that was reported out of the judiciary bill unanimously. The result is a bill that will actually not end bulk collection, regrettably,” she said to the Post.

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