A U.S. Senate committee has forwarded a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee that would give the NSA broad powers to conduct electronic surveillance, particularly with regards to electronic mail and instant message traffic. In addition, the bill would retroactively immunize telecommunications providers who, between 9/11/01 and the date the bill passes, gave access to such data to the NSA without being compelled by a warrant. If this law passes, it will immediately cause the dismissal of several pending lawsuits, including one brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group dedicated to defending privacy rights in the digital age, in response to the recent revelations about domestic NSA spying.
The bill would basically make permanent the temporary measures passed during the summer of 2007 in the Protect America Act, but it would also go a step further to shield corporations for acquiescing to NSA requests that predated the legal justification for such actions. According to a Wired blog that has been following the story:
In fact, it's about ordering Yahoo or Microsoft to open their e-mail systems in perpetuity to the NSA so that it can start looking at the content of all e-mails sent from or to IP blocks it believes to be outside the country and begin monitoring all U.S.-based communications services on a meta-level, with an option to get at content when it thinks it should.
Now, keep in mind that the surveillance is supposed to be done only on IP address blocks that are outside the country. This limit would seem to give Americans privacy protection when they are communicating solely in America with other Americans, but the problem is the incredible amount of secrecy involved in the process. With immunity for the telecommunication providers, it is likely that all providers will end up with secret rooms like AT&T built for the NSA.
I really don't have a problem with tapping suspected terrorist's phones and intercepting their electronic communications. My issue is with the oversight, or the lack thereof, that the Bush administration and the current Congress seem to think is appropriate. Any agency that has the ability to intercept any communication without oversight or threat of punitive damages through lawsuits has too much power, in my opinion. There may not have been a single instance of illegal wiretapping to date, but as long as the potential is there and there are no consequences, the system is ripe for abuse.
Do you agree with the new Senate bill? Would you like to see more checks on the authority that the NSA has for wiretapping and electronic surveillance? What types of oversight do you think should be in place before the Protect America Act is made permanent?