After being criticized for his wishy-washy calls to “reform” the NSA’s domestic spying program, Barack Obama has finally unveiled legislation that he says will resolve Americans privacy concerns. Alas, for a handful of reasons, the president’s “improvements” are not overly encouraging:
1. NSA Passes the Buck to Private Companies Instead
Good news: the NSA wouldn’t be storing your phone data anymore. Bad news: the government would just legally require the phone companies to keep exhaustive records on you instead. Is it really that much better to have U.S. agencies commissioning a different entity to gather private information? The existing corrupt and incestuous dynamic between government and corporations kind of mitigates any difference anyway. So while some headlines are celebrating the NSA will stop spying on you, they’re willfully omitting the fact that someone else is recording your activities.
2. The Government Still Has Easy Access to this Information
Despite nominally changing ownership of this data, the government won’t be conceding access of this data altogether. The proposed legislation would establish some pretty loose criteria for government officials to attain any information they see fit:
- Rather than proving probable cause, the government would just need a “reasonable articulable suspicion” to gather intelligence from the phone companies’ records.
- A judge wouldn’t need to sign off on the government accessing data.
- The government could pry into the lives of citizens for reasons that have nothing to do with a terrorism investigation.
This proposed minimal oversight further erases the distinction between having someone separate from the government storing the data. Additionally, the rules don’t seem to do much to harness on the government disregarding constitutional protections and spying on citizens at will.
3. It Legitimatizes a Divisive Issue
Although the reform is not nearly as meaningful as many Americans had hoped for, some support it because it seems like better than nothing. However, the administration may be offering minor concessions on its spying program in an attempt to get unwarranted surveillance on the books.
With many believing that the NSA has been conducting unlawful surveillance, passing this new legislation would give some legitimacy to the practice. By cementing surveillance into law, it could further help to squash debate on the subject. Perhaps that’s why Obama is calling on Congress to pass these NSA reforms “quickly.” (And by “quickly”, he really means nearly a year after Edward Snowden brought these misdeeds to our attention.)
4. It Probably Won’t Pass, Meaning No Reform Anyway
Of course, getting the legislation to pass in Congress – let alone this Congress – seems unlikely. Some representatives, citing national security, do not want to change the existing program. Others object to surveillance period and won’t want to legitimatize it. Add to that Republican legislators who are systematically opposed to anything Obama endorses… where will the necessary votes come from? Heck, Obama doesn’t even have the support of everyone in his own party, including Senator Dianne Feinstein who only hates spying when it’s directed at her.
In other words, a highly plausible “no” vote also means no reform. Maybe that’s part of the administration’s plan, as well. After all, Obama just renewed the NSA’s existing surveillance program to continue as-is until reform is worked out… if it ever is.