U.S. passes first significant surveillance reform in a generation

USAF Victory

Mass surveillance of any population is a violation of basic human rights. In the modern era, when surveillance can be automated and digitized, and records can be stored indefinitely, the threat to privacy is increasing exponentially.

We have a lot of work to do to restore our fundamental rights globally. But today, we can celebrate a victory — a new law in the United States that actually constrains government surveillance. This is the first time in a generation that the U.S. government has enacted legislation to substantively rein in its intelligence agencies.

On Wednesday, President Obama signed into law the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015, which bans bulk collection under some U.S. surveillance powers, increases transparency, and improves accountability of surveillance agencies and oversight mechanisms.

The law is far from perfect, but its passage is the first step in a long journey toward comprehensive surveillance reform that protects the human rights of all people around the world. The transparency and accountability sections are important, but perhaps the best section of the new law is a prohibition on bulk collection — the collection of all records — under certain legal authorities. However, unfortunately the law’s greatest weakness is that this prohibition does not apply to all collection authorities.

Access is committed to extending and defending the digital rights of users at risk around the world. The mass surveillance of internet users conducted by governments across the globe is a threat to our freedoms of expression, movement, assembly, thought, and religion. It should be stopped. Now that the U.S. has set a legal precedent for prohibiting bulk collection, it can be extended to all authorities to protect the rights of all people.

The USA FREEDOM Act was passed in part because sections of the USA PATRIOT Act were due to expire in what lawmakers call a “sunset.” That created the necessary pressure for Congress to consider updates to the law — in this case a law that was used as authority for mass domestic surveillance. However, rampant privacy abuse continues under other authorities, some of which also have sunset dates. Case in point: Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which is now being used to justify the mass surveillance of people outside the U.S. It is scheduled for sunset in December 2017.

We can’t wait two more years before we reform Section 702 or other authorities for mass surveillance. For example, President Obama could immediately reform Executive Order 12333, the authority for much of the surveillance conducted outside the U.S. There’s no need for a “sunset” to trigger debate. The time is now to finish the work started with the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act and deliver surveillance reform for people all across the globe.  Access will continue the work we have engaged in over the last two years on U.S. surveillance reform from our office in Washington, D.C., and attempt to extend the gains that have been made in the U.S. to other jurisdictions.

One way to do that is by ensuring the integrity of our communications systems. Global governments have weakened the security that everyone depends on through manually inserted hardware and software vulnerabilities, intrusions into networks, and the undermining of encryption. Now, governments are pushing for the power to demand encryption “backdoors” in our products and services. This must be expressly prohibited by law.

It was almost exactly two years after Edward Snowden revealed the terrifying scope of the U.S. government’s surveillance apparatus that the USA FREEDOM Act was passed. It’s been a long, hard road, but there is much more to be done.

I want to pay special tribute to the many organizations, individuals, and particular Congressional representatives who worked so hard on this reform. And of course to the Access staff who toiled over Section 215 and the USA FREEDOM Act night after night. It may not be perfect, but it kickstarts the new norm that we have been pushing for.

We hope you will join us as we continue to fight for the rights of users at risk around the world. If you’d like to hear about developments as they happen, we encourage you to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.