As President-elect Donald Trump begins to piece together his cabinet, the signs are that the next few years are not going to be too bright for privacy advocates in the USA.
The two names at the top of his list for the lead roles in law enforcement and intelligence in the country are both outspoken advocates of greater surveillance powers. And many commentators are suggesting this means it will only be a matter of time before the FBI, NSA, and CIA are handed yet great surveillance powers.
Remove impediments to surveillance
Trump’s top name for the role of Attorney General is Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, while the name in the running to be the new director of the CIA is Republican Representative Mike Pompeo. Both have been outspoken about the need to legal restrictions on surveillance to be removed.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California in 2015 and the shootings at a nightclub in Orlando earlier this year, Mike Pompeo co-wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he said “What’s needed is a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities… Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.”
Both Pompeo and Sessions have argued for the repeal of the 2015 law, introduced in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, which banned to bulk collection of telephone data from all US citizens, and indeed Pompeo is on record as wanting the powers to be extended even further.
“Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database”, he wrote in the same article.
Expand online data collection
The US Congress is expected to consider legislation renewing the powers to collect email and social media content, and with Republican control of the house, these powers are likely to be renewed or even strengthened. Senator Sessions is on record as opposing any restraints on NSA surveillance powers.
Then there is the highly controversial issue of accessing encrypted communications. Following the refusal of Apple to unlock an iPhone for the FBI in the San Bernardino case, this has become a huge political hot potato.
Trump himself called for a boycott of Apple while on the campaign trail and FBI Director James Comey has also indicated that he intends to restart the debate on this issue in the new year.
Republican North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, who also chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, is expected to reintroduce legislation that didn’t pass earlier this year, that would require companies to provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with access to encrypted communication on request
And the FBI is also likely to seek provisions which allow it to collect non-communication online data, such as browser histories and IP Addresses, without the need for a warrant.
Should all of these potential laws come to fruition, the privacy landscape in the USA would be changed like never before. And the recent passing of the Investigatory Powers Bill in the UK shows that there is a precedent for a notionally free western democracy to pass draconian, intrusive and excessive surveillance laws.
US citizens are already turning to VPNs in great numbers since the victory of Donald Trump earlier this month. As he begins to piece together his cabinet, we can expect to see these numbers rising significantly in the weeks and months ahead.