Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act is the primary legal foundation upon which the NSA’s mass surveillance of US citizen’s phone and internet data rests. It is a provision of the Act that was initially intended to expire (‘sunset’) on 31 December 2005, but has been successively renewed (without any real opposition) to ensure the NSA continues to have a mandate for its activities.
Ever since Edward Snowden revealed to the public the lack of oversight, the over-reach, and the sheer scope of the NSA’s spying operations, however, public concern over Section 215 has grown. Earlier this month the US court of appeals ruled the controversial provision unlawful, overturning an earlier challenge to the legislation, and clearing the way for full legal action against the NSA by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
However, Section 215 is due to ‘sunset’ again on 1 June. Although some hard-line supporters of NSA surveillance (such as Republican Senator Mitch McConnell) continue to push for a straight extension of the provision, a realization is growing that this may not be possible.
Instead, many of its supporters are now pushing for a compromise in which the provisions of a revived USA Freedom Act would be further watered down, in exchange for an agreement not to renew Section 215 (or possibly vice versa).
The Freedom Act, aimed at reforming NSA blanket surveillance, was quietly shelved last year after most of its supporters withdrew their endorsement over accusations that it had been too watered down. Just a week before the Patriot Act is due to expire, however, the Freedom Act was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives, despite a continued lack of support from rights campaigners such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
With just 3 working days until Section 215 runs out, Kentucky senator and Republican presidential candidate Paul Rand yesterday filibustered for 10 hours and 30 minutes. His aim, ostensibly, was to block renewal of the legislation. However, as he stepped aside at midnight, leaving two days of debate left before the deadline, his actions can be seen as purely symbolic, rather than intended to any have meaningful effect on the outcome.
Meanwhile, however, while the Senate hums and haws over the issue, a new set of surveys performed by Global Strategy Group and G2 Public Strategies for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows that ordinary ‘representative’ Americans of all political persuasions, ages, and gender identities, are broadly opposed to government surveillance.
‘Believe the Patriot Act should not be reauthorized in its current form. With broad, bipartisan support across all ages, ideologies and political parties, voters are rejecting the argument that the Patriot Act should be preserved with no changes because of potential terrorist threats. Independent voters (71% modify) and those who consider themselves very conservative (67% modify), in particular, are driving the push for modification to limit government surveillance.’
Results from the Iowa poll
Interestingly Republican, Democrat, and self-identified ‘very conservative’ voters generally see eye-to-eye on the issue. As Greg Strimple, president of GS Strategy Group notes,
‘Consensus on this issue is bipartisan. There’s real concern about what the government’s accessing about your personal life.’
When asked about issues surrounding the Act, the response was even more dramatic. 82 percent of respondents said they were ‘concerned’ about government collection and retention of their personal data, 83 percent expressed concern over government access to personal data stored by businesses without the need for a warrant, and 84 percent said they wanted the same legal protects for their data as currently exist for their physical records and property.
It is clear, then, that ordinary Americans of every political, social, and gender background want an end to mass indiscriminate and unaccountable spying by the government, and if Senators even vaguely claim to represent their constituents, then they should vote against Section 215 on Monday…