In June 2013 the Edward Snowden revelations brought to light the NSA’s bulk collection of American phone records. An acquisition of data that has been occurring since 2006, and so far reaching that its importance seems to have eclipsed the FBI’s general procurement of other forms of communications (of which it has been guilty throughout the same period), this has long been an issue for liberal civil rights activists.
On 1 June, however, Section 215 of the Patriot Act is up once more for extension. With political opposition to Section 215 coming from both sides of the political scales, it is now looking more difficult than ever for the NSA to once again extend the controversial legislation that has allowed US authorities to make sweeping procurement of American citizens’ telephone communications for the last decade.
Furthermore, a report released on Thursday by the Justice Department’s inspector general reveals the extent to which government agencies have been using Section 215 to gain data other than public phone records. It demonstrates that the Patriot Act has allowed for the sweeping collection of electronic business and medical records, educational and tax information, and other ‘tangible things’ that authorities have felt are relevant to ongoing counter-terrorism or espionage investigations in the post 9/11 landscape.
These new revelations have only been further fuel for a fire which saw Senator Rand Paul take the stage for a somewhat dramatic 11 hour filibuster speech . However, although symbolic of the general antipathy toward the Patriot Act, this will have little real impact on whether the vote in the senate sees Section 215 ratified once more.
One thing’s for sure, the new report from the inspector general has come at the right time. It helps to shed light on the FBI’s activities between 2007 and 2009, revealing that it has indeed been using Section 215 to gain access to ‘large collections of metadata’, such as ‘electronic communication transactional information’.
‘Transactional information’ the nature of which although not specifically disclosed in the redacted document, more than likely refers to records of emails, instant messages, text messages and IP addresses – an assumption made due to sections of the report that refer to FBI requests for ‘material related to internet activity,’ and which at times makes mention of ‘IP addresses and to/from entries in emails’.
The inspector general found that the FBI had made around 40 percent more requests for data between 2007 and 2009 than it had in the previous 5 years, and revealed that Cybersecurity investigations were a growing category of the orders by 2009. The inspector general also called into question FBI procedures to obscure and destroy information about Americans that had been subsequently found unrelated to terrorism or espionage.
Although head of the FBI, James Comey, said on Wednesday that loosing Section 215 would be a ‘big problem’, the inspector of justice’s report found that,
‘[T]he agents we interviewed did not identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders, but told us that the material produced pursuant to Section 215 orders was valuable in that it was used to support other investigative requests, develop investigative leads, and corroborate other information,’
These revelations have further prompted supporters of Rand Paul to claim the time has come to abandon all of Section 215, rather than just the bulk collection provisions used to make sweeping seizures of American citizens’ phone record – provisions which have already been found illegal by the federal court of appeals.
Speaking out against the USA Freedom Act, which seeks to abandon only the part of Section 215 that was found to be illegal by the federal appeals court,Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress suggested that it would do too little, and would leave the system open to further abuses against American citizens. Alex Abdo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said,
‘This report adds to the mounting evidence that Section 215 has done little to protect Americans and should be put to rest. As Congress debates whether to rein in the NSA, this investigation underscores how sweeping the government’s surveillance programs are and how essential systemic reform is right now.’
Though it would be nice to think that the whole of Section 215 will be dropped on 1 June, it seems much more likely that an end to the bulk collection of phone records (as designated by the USA Freedom Act) is as good as we are going to get. After all, we can not have the surveillance obsessed alphabet agencies going hungry, can we?
Luckily, with the phone issue put to bed and a VPN service at their disposal, US citizens should now be able to find for themselves (with just a little effort) a reasonable amount of privacy, should they desire it.