The NSA Reform Bill That Isn't Pushes Forward

The bill by the woman who loves (most) NSA surveillance fails to reform NSA surveillance. Imagine that.


"The reforms! They do nothing!"
The Simpsons

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's bill to "reform" the National Security Agency's surveillance systems is moving forward, having passed a vote in the Senate Intelligence Committee Agency, 11-4. Tech privacy experts are banging their faces against their keyboards for good reason.

Here's how Feinstein promotes the reform in her own statement: "[It] prohibits the collection of bulk communication records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act except under specific procedures and restrictions set forth in the bill." Emphasis added.

The specific procedures and restrictions set forth? It's what they were already doing. This isn't a ban. It's permission. The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes:

Don't be fooled: the bill codifies some of the NSA's worst practices, would be a huge setback for everyone's privacy, and it would permanently entrench the NSA's collection of every phone record held by U.S. telecoms. We urge members of Congress to oppose it.

We learned for the first time in June that the NSA secretly twisted and re-interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act six years ago to allow them to vacuum up every phone record in America—continuing an unconstitutional program that began in 2001. The new leaks about this mass surveillance program four months ago have led to a sea change in how Americans view privacy, and poll after poll has shown the public wants it to stop.

But instead of listening to her constituents, Sen. Feinstein put forth a bill designed to allow the NSA to monitor their calls. Sen. Feinstein wants the NSA to continue to collect the metadata of every phone call in the United States—that's who you call, who calls you, the time and length of the conversation, and under the government's interpretation, potentially your location—and store it for five years. This is not an NSA reform bill, it's an NSA entrenchment bill.

Other parts of the bill claim to bring a modicum of transparency to small parts of the NSA, but requiring some modest reporting requirements, like how many times NSA searches this database and audit trails for who does the searching.

But its real goal seems to be to just paint a veneer of transparency over still deeply secret programs. It does nothing to stop NSA from weakening entire encryption systems, it does nothing to stop them from hacking into the communications links of Google and Yahoo's data centers, and it does nothing to reform the PRISM Internet surveillance program.

Reason's Ron Bailey previously warned about this terrible legislation and noted the much better alternatives by other congressmen that actually would limit bulk data collection and preserve Americans' online privacy.