The US Congress has voted to reauthorise Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the controversial piece of legislation which allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on overseas citizens.
But the vote was not without its dramas, as no less a figure than President Trump, almost managed to block the legislation, before backtracking in humiliating fashion.
The controversy over Section 702
Section 702 of FISA is controversial in the USA because of an unintended consequence rather than its core purpose. It is intended to allow the NSA to carry out surveillance on anyone outside the USA without a warrant.
As most global internet traffic passes through the USA at some point, the law effectively gives them the right to monitor all internet traffic. Remarkably, most US legislators and citizens seem to think this is perfectly alright.
But the wording of the law has created issues It says that the NSA can surveil “accounts whose owners are reasonably believed to be foreigners outside of the United States.” That wording means that the NSA can sometimes scoop up internet data from US citizens too.
It is illegal for the NSA to collect data on US citizens without a warrant and many see Section 702 as a loophole. There were efforts by various US Representatives from both US political parties, to introduce safeguards to stop this happened.
The Trump Twitter hurdle
However, they all failed and it appeared that the law would be voted through until Donald Trump stepped in.
Because, midway through the debate, Trump posted a tweet criticising Section 702. He wrote, “House votes on controversial FISA ACT today. This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phoney Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?”
With his own Republican Party supporting the bill, there was panic and some talk that the Bill could be pulled altogether. The confusion came from the fact that, as we have reported before, Trump has up until this point appeared to be all in favour of the powers continuing.
But sadly for internet privacy advocates, it seems that this was little more than yet another Trump Twitter gaffe, as almost two hours latest he posted another tweet contradicting his first.
It said, “With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”
Despite Trump’s clear lack of understanding of the policy, and his team’s failure to explain his tweets, his volte-face meant that the Republican Party relaxed and, in the end, the law was passed by a margin of 256 votes to 164.
What the renewal means for online privacy
What Congress has agreed is to extend the powers Section 702 grants the NSA for a further six years. This means that the US will be permitted to spy on any non-US citizens and some Americans too, until at least 2023. They can do this without a warrant or any effective safeguards being in place to oversee their activities.
The only oversight mechanism in place at all is the FISA Court. This body is made up of 11 judges and is viewed by most a rubber-stamping body which agrees to just about anything the intelligence agencies ask of it.
The renewal of Section 702 is a dark day for internet users around the world. If you live in the USA, it is possible that your government is spying on internet activity without any warrant or due cause to do so. If you live outside the USA, it is almost certain that they are.
As US legislators have proved unable to act in the best interests of their citizens, the responsibility now has to lie with the citizens themselves. There are a few tools that you can use to protect your online privacy and stop the NSA from snooping on your online activity.
The best of these by some distance is a VPN. By using a reliable VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN which keeps zero user logs and uses the best available encryption, you can be sure that no matter how sophisticated NSA technology may be and how keen US Congress is for them to be able to monitor what you are doing online, it will offer the best available protection against their advances.