May 23, 2014
House Vote Limits NSA Data Collection, But Experts Say It Won’t Stop Government Snooping
Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
On Thursday the United States House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to limit the National Security Agency's (NSA) mass collection of telephone records. In a 303 to 121 vote, the House approved scaled-back legislation that was seen as sending a clear message that both parties no longer favor the NSA's power to collect bulk surveillance data.
Last year the House was much more divided than this year, but anger over the leaks from Edward Snowden helped bring the two sides together.
House Republicans as well as House Democrats and the White House were able to work out a deal that apparently satisfied few, but at the same time was able to limit government snooping. The measure would end the NSA's practice of gathering the bulk data, but would leave such records in the custody of telephone companies – and that data could be searched at the NSA's request.
This so-called "USA Freedom Act" would also allow the NSA to collect an individual's phone records if investigators could convince the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is reasonable suspicion a person was involved with terrorism.
"This part of the legislation is something to think about," said Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland. "I compare this with my students to the six degrees of separation to Kevin Beacon. How many degrees are you from a police suspicion? Most people don't know how many degrees they are from someone under suspicion."
Still this measure could reduce some government snooping said House leaders.
"People are a lot more comfortable with a government that is not storing all this metadata," said Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, as reported by the New York Times. He further praised the bill, which "makes it clear there will be no access to this data without a court decision and the standards for that decision are higher than they were."
However, it is unlikely government surveillance will completely stop.
"It is going to continue," Purtilo told redOrbit. "I can't believe for a second that this is going to be the end of it. First of all we got into this situation because officials creatively interrupted the rules so they could get as much data as they could."
"The only middle ground that seems to have been reached is for the current House to pass a bill that says let the next Congress handle it," added Purtilo. "At the same time that people are being told behind the scenes to creatively interrupt the data."
The question then becomes how concerned should individuals be about the snooping?
"This is part of the changing world," telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan told redOrbit. "There is really an avalanche of data that pours in daily. But this didn't exist in the 1990s and it only started to pop up in recent years, as that happened we started to talk about it as it was an invasion of privacy."
"It keeps getting worse as it shines a light on it but doesn't stop it," Kagan added. "Gathering data is getting easy. Today a cash register is a computer terminal and every sale is instantly registered. Bit by bit in every area they know more about us. It is a flood of information. Corporations are just gathering the data now, but at some point there could be technology that could allow them to use it. The government could also use it to keep an eye on everyone."
The next question is when does this go too far?
"In many ways we've already crossed that line a long time ago," said Kagan. "It is unstoppable and it is regrettable, but it is one of the downsides of the technological revolution. However, not everyone thinks there is a downside. Some love it, some hate it but we're not going to stop it. Companies like they can market to people and the government can watch us."
Of course it should be stressed that the government would argue it isn't gathering the data for sinister reasons, but rather to keep the public safe. Just as there are degrees of how far the government is allowed, or should be allowed to go, there are degrees of separation between those doing bad and those who are completely innocent, said the experts.
"These officials doing this surveillance fought for this legislation for a reason," said Purtilo. "The biggest reason is because it works. There are degrees of working, but the meta data is more than just a phone call. It actually paints a picture of someone so it is extremely helpful for law enforcement."
"That data isn't just in a silo waiting to be checked for your connections to some nefarious organization. It is actually joined to other data that is out there," added Purtilo. "The data creates a tapestry and the treads that hold it together is the meta data. What people are arguing is what is used from the tapestry. It paints a tremendous picture. It goes to the saying, 'Tell me who your friends are and I can tell who you are.'"
The House vote may also be telling.
"This had a pretty strong house vote," Purtilo agreed. "This suggests to me there was a compromise in the works."