In the US, the surveillance sky is falling

At least temporarily, ‘Big Brother’ was listening less intensely.

That was the reality in the United States after provisions authorised by the USA Patriot Act, the law passed in the aftermath of 9/11, failed to be renewed by the US Senate on Sunday evening (31 May).

The main programme that was shut down on Sunday allowed the National Security Agency, the American equivalent of the UK’s GCHQ, to collect bulk phone data.

This did not involve listening in on telephone conversations but rather accumulating details of all telephone calls made in the US, such as the duration of calls and the numbers contacted. Government officials argued that this collection of ‘metadata’ is essential for American counter-terrorism, while civil libertarians decried what they saw as a completely unnecessary infringement on personal privacy.

On Tuesday (2 June), a ‘compromise’ bill known as the USA Freedom Act was passed by the Senate. While the bill restores some of the provisions in the Patriot Act, authorities will now require a targeted warrant to access telephone metadata.

The American public is divided and contradictory on the issue.

According to polling done by the Pew Research Center, 54% of Americans oppose the collection of internet and telephone data. On the other hand, nearly half of all Americans believe that policies against terrorism have not gone far enough in terms of protecting them.

Certainly some politicians, particularly Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from the libertarian wing of the party and a candidate for president, are now unafraid to follow a course of action that would have been political suicide just a few years ago. It was Paul’s delaying tactics in the Senate that blocked the immediate renewal of the provisions.

The impact of Paul’s actions on the effectiveness of American domestic counter-terrorism is unclear.

Despite proclaiming the absolute necessity of the programme by government officials, there is no concrete evidence in the public domain that it led to the disruption of terrorism plots. The Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted as much last month, and a 2014 study by the New America Foundation of 225 individuals charged with terrorism offences in the US post-9/11 found that phone data collection ‘had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism’.

What is clear is that the Obama administration and the National Security Agency (as well as Obama’s predecessor in the White House) only have themselves to blame for the events of the last few days. The complete lack of transparency, combined with the huge expansion of surveillance since 9/11, inexorably created the potential for exposure and backlash.

Into this environment came Edward Snowden, the former US government employee who, through his massive leak of top-secret documents, ignited the ongoing controversy and criticism of intelligence agencies.

Regardless of the new bill, that fire continues to burn.

Dr Steve Hewitt
Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and the American and Canadian Studies Centre, University of Birmingham