A split within the Republican Party on the issue of online privacy has emerged after a block of conservative-leaning legislators indicated that they were opposed to the renewal of the USA’s online surveillance law without changes being made to how citizen’s data is collected and used.
President Donald Trump had indicated that he supported the renewal of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as it was, without any amendments being made to the legislation. However, the House Freedom Caucus, which comprises around 35 legislators, opposes this.
FISA in breach of constitutional rights
They argue that in its current form, FISA is in breach of the constitutional rights. They said in a statement, “We oppose any reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act that does not include substantial reforms to the government’s collection and use of Americans’ data.”
FISA has long been criticised by privacy and civil liberties advocates for the way in encroaches on the privacy of US citizens. The section of the act which has provoked most opposition is Section 702, which allows the incidental collection of data about an unspecified number of US citizens without any warrant being required.
Section 702 also permits the surveillance of phone calls, emails, and other forms of electronic communication of foreigners who live overseas.
Put together, these two powers could very well mean that US intelligence agencies are legally permitted to snoop into the communications of every single person on the planet and in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, that would not come as a particularly huge surprise to many. However, the intelligence agencies themselves are adamant these powers are needed on national security grounds.
Freedom Caucus carries weight
The Freedom Caucus is a powerful group as, without their vote, the Trump administration is unable to get legislation passed. They have already been successful in voting down Trump’s first attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
They were also influential in the Congressional vote over the programme run by the National Security Agency (NSA) which collected the metadata of US telephone calls in bulk. This process was eventually voted down by Congress.
It is not yet clear to what extent the Freedom Causes will want to see FISA revised before they are willing to lend it their support. It is also not clear whether it is section 702 that is in their crosshairs, although given the wording of their statement, this seems likely.
The statement talks about ‘substantial reforms’ which suggests that there is likely to be a long discussion between the group and the Trump regime over what changes they want to see put in place before any agreements can be made.
A Small State stance
It may seem surprising that the Freedom Caucus, which is traditionally viewed as a very right-wing association is opposed Government security powers such as these. But actually, their stance is a consistent one. The Freedom Caucus are a group who believe in small government and limited state powers to infringe upon the activities of the people.
Government surveillance on the private communications of its citizens is about as intrusive as state powers can and, in actual fact, the real surprise is that more Republicans, and indeed the Trump Administration itself, is not taking this stance.
For internet users in the USA, there is now a glimmer of hope that just maybe, the Government might reign in the incredible surveillance powers their intelligence agencies possess.
But, of course, the Trump regime does not have a strong record on online privacy thanks to the actions of Ajit Pai at the FCC, which has already rolled back laws which protect user data privacy and is currently trying to undermine net neutrality laws too.
But even if the Freedom Caucus is successful in its attempts to get FISA’s powers changed, the reality is that it is still impossible for a US citizen to use the internet securely and privately, without resorting to a VPN to protect them.