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The NSA's Winter of Discontent

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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December 12, 2013

Originally posted on The Huffington Post.

The summer of Snowden is fast becoming the NSA's winter of discontent.

This week, tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook and others published an open letter to President Obama and Congress urging comprehensive reform of "government surveillance efforts." Then more than 500 writers, including five Pulitzer Prize winners, signed a petition to the United Nations calling for a digital bill of rights to protect freedom and privacy online. In that eloquent way of theirs, they wrote: "A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy."

That's the message approximately 3,000 of us from all walks of life took to the foot of the U.S. Capitol during The StopWatching.US March Against Mass Surveillance earlier this fall. Thankfully, many privacy and open government organizations and members of Congress agree.

Since the disclosures began in early June, there has been a flurry of legislative activity attempting to reform NSA surveillance in some way. None, however, was as significant as the USA FREEDOM Act, introduced in both the House and the Senate by two members of Congress--Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)--who helped write and pass the Patriot Act, the legislative vehicle the NSA wrongly used to unlawfully collect all our phone call records on a daily ongoing basis.

The bill would end the NSA's unconstitutional bulk collection of our call records. It would also clearly prohibit the bulk collection of other sensitive "business records," while making the government's surveillance programs more transparent and accountable. It is serious, roll-up-your-sleeves reform, which is why another powerful group of people have supported it: some of the nation's most prestigious editorial boards. For instance:

The San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 27:

The revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have made plain that the government has stretched the boundaries of the law in tracking phone calls. The Leahy and Feinstein bills provide a choice of whether to sanction or curtail this brazen usurpation of privacy rights. The Leahy approach is the right one for a nation that values both security and liberty.

The New York Times, Oct. 28:

Fortunately, members of Congress have been more aggressive in responding to two broad disclosures. One, that both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations misinterpreted the Patriot Act to permit the collection of metadata on phone calls, emails and text messages of all Americans, whether they were international or domestic….Legislation... introduced... by Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, would end the bulk collection of Americans' communications data.

The Houston Chronicle, Nov. 1:

The USA Freedom Act is a compilation of the best features of some 25 bills that have been filed in response to concerns about NSA's trespasses against privacy. It would increase transparency by allowing communications providers to disclose the number of surveillance orders they receive and mandate the government publish how many people are subject to surveillance order.

The Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5:

The metadata program intrudes on the privacy of virtually every American. It needs to be ended, not mended.

And that's just a taste. Since the USA FREEDOM Act was introduced, 71 editorial boards, in both blue and red states, have written about the legislation, overwhelmingly urging for tighter reins on NSA spying, according to analysis by ReThink Media. When op-eds written by outside contributors are factored into the overall coverage, you have a positive sea of green in support of the USA FREEDOM Act as the map below demonstrates.

Opinion and Editorial Coverage of the NSA from June to November 2013

There's a reason why the NSA is concerned about the growing chorus of concern from every facet of society—both here and abroad—about its dragnet surveillance programs: change looks inevitable, particularly as bipartisan congressional support continues to grow for the USA FREEDOM Act. Currently, 130 members of Congress have co-sponsored the legislation, and just yesterday Sen. Leahy held a hearing on his legislation and NSA reform. And with pressure intensifying in the House for a vote, the USA FREEDOM Act should hit the floor sometime in the new year—a vote the Obama administration and the NSA will no doubt lobby hard against.

Here's hoping the NSA's winter of discontent becomes a democratic spring. Innocent Americans should never have to worry their government's awesome surveillance capabilities are intercepting, filtering, collecting, analyzing, and storing the intimate details of their lives. Appallingly, they do.

To see if your members of Congress are a co-sponsor of the USA FREEDOM Act, click here. If your members haven't co-sponsored the USA FREEDOM Act, urge them to here.

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