State of Surveillance

By Alison Xin

Chances are, with the Hawaii missile panic, DACA, North Korea, and a plethora of other crises piling up recently, the passing of Section 702 has flown under your radar. I admit that I would have missed it had I not been on a strange tangent through current events in cyber-security.  Essentially, the bill modifies the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and allows for government agencies to expand warrantless surveillance operations. If your gaze started drifting toward the Fourth Amendment, supporters of Section 702 are quick to point out that the legislation does not explicitly endorse the surveillance of U.S. citizens. Communication is a two-way street, however, and data traveling between a foreign subject and an American can be grabbed under FISA, which doesn’t bode well for privacy (Krumholz). The “privacy enhancements” granted by Section 702 – such as requirements for “probable cause” and prohibitions against “bulk collection” (Banks) – ignores the reality of how the NSA has consistently sidestepped enforcement mechanisms, amassing databases of personal information on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals indiscriminately.

Like so many similar surveillance laws and programs, the powers granted in Section 702 allegedly enhance national security. Representative Jim Banks, whose statements were published in the Washington Examiner, describes the bill as an “important counterterrorism program…that protects our nation and prevents future terrorist attacks”, citing one specific example of removing an ISIS commander. While actions taken under FISA might target terrorists, the umbrella of “foreign intelligence” encompasses all foreign nationals, including governments and world leaders that are supposedly allies, like Chancellor Angela Merkel (who is, to the best of my knowledge, neither a terrorist nor a sponsor of terrorism). The NSA’s web of vigilance stretches far and wide, detailed by the Snowden leaks and the constant reveal of immoral United States spying operations. Surveillance neither originates from nor begets international trust, and the dedication to keeping an eye on as many people as possible, regardless of friendly relations, undermines faith in the United States as an ethical actor.

Additionally, the surveillance mechanisms abetted by acts like FISA and Section 702 exacerbate cybersecurity concerns. Like a bloated dragon, the NSA hoards known vulnerabilities in software, preferring to take advantage of security holes rather than inform companies about necessary patches. Ironically, the NSA doesn’t keep information on these security holes properly secured, exposing new opportunities to hackers or cyber-terrorists. Similarly, spying tools developed by the NSA have been cracked and sold on the black market, and have been linked to high-profile malware outbreaks, such as the 2017 spread of WannaCry, a ransomware that encrypts personal files until payment. Encouraging government intelligence agencies to continue this behavior with legislation like Section 702 is like tossing water on a grease fire; logical, up until the point the flames explode and spread.

On its own, Section 702 does not signify a major step in the removal of privacy rights in the United States. At its core, it only extends a temporary provision of FISA. But if individuals start ignoring actions that seem insignificant, inch-by-inch, like a monster that creeps toward you as soon as you turn your back, intelligence agencies may find ground to expand their powers to levels that seem to subvert the freedoms expected of a first-world country. Most people simply accept that their privacy is up for grabs, a natural side effect of the digitalizing of daily life. In a world of social media, voice recognition, and constant GPS tracking, simple actions like not opening suspicious e-mails or keeping your phone off no longer seem to cut it. However, allowing the government to run amok with generally accepted rights and responsibilities certainly does not help. For the time, the United States is still a democracy, with representatives that still have to listen to their base to remain in power. With enough voices and enough momentum, maybe we can stop and eventually slowly reverse the roll out of surveillance.