Last night, privacy advocates’ one guiding star in the darkness of mass surveillance reform disappeared as a bill to the end bulk collection of data was significantly altered.
This morning a rash of digital civil liberty groups withdrew support for the USA Freedom Act, which was the only bill in the House of Representatives with enough momentum to end the most controversial parts of National Security Agency surveillance.
“The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn’t achieve the goal of ending mass spying,” wrote the EFF in blog post that had everything but sad emoticons to express the organization’s disappointment. Specifically, the amended bill has squishy language on the kinds of targets and people the NSA would be allowed to surveil.
“The new version not only adds the undefined words ‘address’ and ‘device,’ but makes the list of potential selection terms open-ended by using the term ‘such as.’ Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government’s history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can’t be relied on to protect our freedoms,” the EFF explains.
Senior officials don’t see it that way. “I can’t imagine what scenario they’re thinking about,” an anonymous official told the Washington Post. “There’s definitely no desire anywhere in any part of the government to keep some door open to large scale collection.”
But it really don’t matter whether security hawks or civil liberty advocates are right in this case. Several Congress staff from leadership positions told me recently it is difficult for the most unproductive Congress in history to pass any meaningful reform before the 2014 election.
There was a glimmer of a hope that NSA reform might be the one big thing they tackle. Now, with widespread opposition to a bill and the resulting fight in the Senate, even if both parts of Congress manage to pass a bill, they’d have to then come together for a final product in the midst of widespread controversy.
If you are of a betting persuasion, put more money on a new season of Seinfeld than NSA reform. In the mean time, here is a step-by-step guide to making a tin foil hat.