According to a report by the news agency Reuters, the Trump Administration is planning to renew the USA’s controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) without introducing any reforms to address concerns raised over privacy.
FISA spying powers
Parts of FISA is due to expire next year and in the US Congress, both Republicans and Democrats have raised concerns about the blanket spying powers it has handed to US intelligence agents.
FISA is the legislation which governs the US’s spying efforts on foreigners. However, it is widely acknowledged that communications data belonging to American citizens also gets caught up in the net. It is not known precisely how much is sucked in, but intelligence agencies have called it “incidental” and insisted it is only collected because of specific technical and practical reasons.
One clause which has come under particular scrutiny is section 702, which authorises intelligence agencies to snoop on the communications of non-US citizens who are not located within the USA. This programme is known as Prism and first came to the public’s attention in the leaks from Edward Snowden.
Prism collects data from services including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple that is either sent from or to any suspect who is under US surveillance.
Meanwhile, there is a separate programme known as Upstream, which the NSA uses to copy online traffic in the USA and then search it for relevant content.
Representatives of both main US political parties have argued that Section 702 is in need of reform, and this week the Judiciary Committee will take a closer look at the law. Privacy groups have long argued that the law enables US intelligence agencies to access the data of US citizens by the backdoor if they so wish and argued that privacy provisions need urgently strengthening.
The National Security excuse again
But it seems that the Trump administration are resolute in retaining the powers as it is and their reasons, predictably boil down to the ‘catch-all’ concept of national security once again.
Reuters quotes an anonymous administration source as saying “We support the clean reauthorization [of FISA] and the administration believes it’s necessary to protect the security of the nation.”
Using national security as a reason is a cop out by the Trump administration. It is one of those excuses that they know they don’t have to defend because many people will shy away from questioning policy at the very mention of the term.
This is precisely why the Obama administration sustained so little collateral damage despite themselves passing and then reauthorizing the powers.
It is also an excuse which means that they can get away without addressing the myriad of concerns that have been raised about the law by both campaign groups and congressmen.
However, Senator Dan Coats, who is President Trump’s nominee for the role of Director of National Intelligence has let slip what the real reason the law is likely to remain in pace is when he described it as “the crown jewels” of the intelligence community.
In other words, they see it as a hugely valuable tool and one which they probably didn’t imagine in their wildest dreams they would ever be handed, never mind be allowed to keep for so long.
There is a glimmer of hope, though, as Coats as said he will try to release make public how often Section 702 has been used on US citizens. Cross-party support for reforms in Congress is also likely to offer a chance of some improvements being made.
But it seems that for the next four year at least, US citizens will have to live with the fact that, through FISA, their Government has a tool to watch whatever they are doing online as and when they please. And unless they have use of a VPN service, their online privacy is at the mercy of the US intelligence community.