Bad news, Ghosties.
Things aren’t looking good for online freedom in the US.
Mid-May 2020, the Senate has voted to reauthorize the USA Freedom Act.
Mass surveillance could be back on the menu for Americans.
The USA Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2020
Here’s the low-down: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has snuck in an amendment that would allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to easily access your internet search and browsing history.
According to the new amendment, a search warrant would no longer be necessary for a law enforcement agency to your browsing history. They simply have to claim it would help a national security investigation.
These agencies would need only approval from a FISA court.
FISA: The secretive court
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – or the FISA court – is a highly fortified courtroom where some of the most secretive government decisions get made.
People didn’t know of it until President Donald Trump claimed he was wiretapped.
The FISA court decides whether to approve wiretaps, data collection, and government requests to monitor suspected terrorists and spies.
No one knows where the room is located. It’s also tightly sealed to prevent eavesdropping. And with such a secretive institution, it’s no wonder some people are concerned with their decisions.
The senators who betrayed your right to privacy
Bills and laws don’t just sprout out of nowhere. In democratic countries, they need to be voted on by a majority. And this act is no different.
One more positive vote would have given the amendment the three-fifths majority it needed to pass.
In total, 37 Senators voted against an amendment that would have stopped the FBI from seizing your web browsing history.
This is who they are:
What is the USA Freedom Act?
The name sounds appealing. Who doesn’t like freedom, right?
But, oh boy, is it misleading…
USA FREEDOM is a backronym that stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015.
Fancy title, but let’s see what it means.
The not so freedom-loving Freedom Act
The Freedom Act would restore what is known as the USA PATRIOT Act. The bill was expected to swoosh through the Senate and be reenabled for another term.
The PATRIOT Act gives the FBI permission to access your data from telecom companies without a warrant, even if you have not been accused of anything yet.
A trip down on memory lane: the PATRIOT Act
The PATRIOT Act was hastily passed 45 days after the 9/11 attacks and brought many changes to surveillance laws.
In the name of national security, allowed authorities to:
- monitor phone and email communications
- collect bank and credit reporting records
- track online activity
This act was created to counter terrorism and enable easy arrests or convictions of the perpetrators.
But it also made it easier for the government to spy on regular Americans as well.
I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the PATRIOT Act, they will be stunned, and they will be angry.
The PATRIOT Act in numbers
The bulk data collection allowed by the PATRIOT Act was used to issue National Security Letters (NSLs).
An NSL is an investigative tool similar to a subpoena issued by the FBI. They do not require a judge’s approval and are used to obtain personal information.
Another 53 reported criminal referrals by the FBI:
- 17 for money laundering
- 17 for immigration
- 19 for fraud
You can see the significant lack of terrorism charges, the very reason for the PATRIOT Act’s existence.
Mass surveillance as a crime deterrent
The PATRIOT Act might sound good in theory. And at the end of the day, if you know someone plans a terror attack, you can try and stop them.
But is it really that easy?
Let’s take a look across the pond, where Britain boasts one of the largest CCTV networks in the world.
When criminologists Brandon Welsh and David Farrington performed an analysis of studies regarding public area CCTV and crime prevention, they found no connection between the two. Other researchers reported similar results.
The PATRIOT Act also didn’t turn out to be a useful tool in the war against terrorism. But the information of plenty of innocent citizens has been collected and stored, nevertheless.
Thank you, Snowden!
In the past, government mass surveillance has been considered a conspiracy theory.
Learn more about mass surveillance in the United States from our Internet Privacy in the Age of Surveillance article.
But then, Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, turned into a key figure and revealed the extent of mass surveillance in the USA. Between 2013 and 2014, he’s made more than dozens of revelations on what goes on behind the government’s closed doors.
Without this knowledge, the extent to which government surveillance had crept into everyday life would have remained just speculation.
And not to mention the fear that regular citizens, not just wanted criminals, are also spied on ha also been confirmed.
Next on the agenda: the EARN IT Act
If you thought the FREEDOM Act is the only thing you have to worry about right now, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.
The EARN IT Act is coming in strong to take another swing at digital privacy.
EARN IT is a backronym for Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies. Senators do love these names, huh?
This act is aimed at tech companies, who’d now have to earn Section 230 protections, rather than being granted immunity by default under the Communications Decency Act.
But it’s not entirely clear why companies have to “earn” what they’re already provided with under the First Amendment.
Now, tech companies can publish and allow their users to publish content, with very few legal restrictions. But if the EARN IT Act were passed, tech companies could be held responsible if their users posted illegal content.
If Article 13 in Europe is any indication, when it comes to this, tech companies just resort to aggressively moderating their platforms.
Earning an attack on encryption
The EARN IT Act would also establish the National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention, tasked with stopping online child sexual abuse material.
The controversial part? The implication that a backdoor would be mandatory for telecom services. The EARN IT Act could stop end-to-end encryption.
This morning the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the "EARN IT" Act. While not directly mandating a backdoor, as written, this act would form a commission that could have the power to require services like @WhatsApp to stop offering end-to-end encryption. 1/— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) March 11, 2020
Signal, a popular private messaging app, has already threatened to leave the US if the act passes.
Digital freedom is looking bleak in the US
The land of the free doesn’t endorse a free and open internet. The digital privacy of Americans is attacked on all fronts in the name of security or safety.
Reporters Without Borders even labeled the US as an enemy of the internet.
US surveillance practices and decryption activities are a direct threat to investigative journalists, especially those who work with sensitive sources for whom confidentiality is paramount and who are already under pressure.
On the scale of internet freedom, the US scored 77 out of 100 points in 2019, one point lower than the previous year.
In part, it’s because of increased government surveillance, but also because of disinformation campaigns tied to major political events.
Taming the wild internet
The US has been trying to regulate the digital world for some time now.
And do you remember the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA)? Or the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)?
Despite trying to combat online piracy, they included measures infringing on the digital freedom of speech. Critics have also argued that there weren’t enough safeguards in place to protect sites that relied on user-generated content.
The acts were met with a massive online blackout as a form of protest.
The FREEDOM Act is nowhere near the first attempt at trying to censor and monitor the internet. And it surely isn’t the last attempt either.
Fight back against surveillance
Don’t let the invasion of your privacy to become the norm. Take action now!
Here’s what you can do.
Get in touch with your representatives
Urge them to oppose any amendments that would weaken the privacy protections in the bill or FISA. Tell them what reforms you’d like to see. Make your voice heard.
Let them know that “potential offenders” should not be a green light for mass surveillance. Demand that your right to privacy is respected.
Support organizations protecting your privacy rights
You are not alone in the fight for privacy. There are plenty of organizations that would see data protection and prevent abuses that infringe upon your rights.
Here are the organizations that have signed the Government Accountability Project’s petition:
- Access Now
- American Booksellers for Free Expression
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Americans for Prosperity
- Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
- Center for Security, Race and Rights
- Constitutional Alliance Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
- Defending Rights & Dissent
- Demand Progress
- Due Process Institute
- Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
- Free Press Action
- Government Accountability Project
- Government Information Watch
- Human Rights Watch
- Liberty Coalition
- Media Alliance
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
- National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)
- National Coalition Against Censorship
- Oakland Privacy
- PEN America
- People Demanding Action
- People For the American Way
- Progress America
- Public Citizen
- Restore The Fourth
- Secure Justice
- South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
- The Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability
- Union of Concerned Scientists
- Woodhull Freedom Foundation
If you can, consider supporting them.
Use a VPN
A VPN – or virtual private network – is a secure method to protect your digital identity and bypass digital surveillance.
It works by encrypting your internet traffic so that Internet Service Providers, the authorities, online services, third parties, and snoopers can no longer track your online activities.
If you need more guidance on this matter, we’re always here for you at CyberGhost VPN.
You should never have to trade your privacy for your safety.
Data collected in bulk invites the government to snoop on your private life. And that’s not what democracy stands for.
So, act now and do what you can to protect your digital privacy!
Until next time, stay safe and secure!