On Sunday night Section 215 of the Patriot Act expired. The intelligence community, President Obama, and many members of Congress say this places the U.S. at greater risk of missing intelligence that could be used to thwart a terrorist attack.
But also on Sunday night, the USA Freedom Act advanced in the Senate. It’s already passed the House of Representatives, so it’s likely to be the successor to the expired provisions in the Patriot Act. The new bill would shift the responsibility of data storage from the NSA to telecom companies.
Tim Shorrock, author of “Spies for Hire,” says the relationship between the NSA and telecommunication companies goes back to the 1950s.
“The NSA used to send a guy up to New York every morning to bring back the metal recordings that the telecoms had made of the telephone calls going to and fro, between the U.S. and foreign countries,” Shorrock says. “And the NSA would go through those calls.”
Schorrock says in times of crisis, U.S. telecom companies have been quick to comply with national security requests. “NSA leaders, directors just called the CEOs of these companies and said ‘you’ve got to do this,’ ” Shorrock says. “And when there’s an incident like 9/11, obviously you know, people react.”
In fact, in 2008 Congress gave telecoms retroactive immunity for forking over customers’ data to the intelligence agencies. So, if the USA Freedom Act were to give telecoms more control, it might not change much in terms of citizens’ privacy. But one thing has changed — the country’s attitude toward NSA surveillance.
So what if one internet provider or phone company decides to take a stand and advertise its new role as the protector of privacy, keeping customer data safe?
That might not make much of a difference either, says Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“So if you’ve got a small ISP and it sits on top of AT&T or on top of Sprint, even if they couldn’t get it from the little ISP or the little telecom carrier, they could go upstream and generally those records are available,” Cohn says.