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A US appeals court has ruled that bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency (NSA) is illegal.
Despite overturning a 2013 decision, the court stopped short of asking the US Congress to halt the program, but did strongly urge them to take action. Legal experts and privacy campaigners have hailed the verdict, saying the landmark decision has effectively paved the way for a full legal challenge against the legitimacy of the NSA.
The extent of the NSA surveillance program came to light in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations in June 2013. The program started after the 11th September 2001 attacks on the US, but many people believe it has now swelled beyond its initial remit and is out of control.
The ruling also called into question the validity of the reauthorisation of a key “Patriot Act” provision that is currently being debated by US legislators. The current provision of the anti-terrorism act will expire on 1st June, but the court sent a warning – believed to be aimed at Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate – that it could not be reauthorized without significant amendments.
The phone records of law abiding citizens are none of the NSA’s business! Pleased with the ruling this morning. pic.twitter.com/y4FBePt6h6
— Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 7, 2015
Senator Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 who has been highly critical of the NSA and its methods, praised the ruling in a Tweet – saying: “The phone records of law abiding citizens are none of the NSA’s business! Pleased with the ruling this morning”.
What it Means for You
The NSA has become a byword for privacy abuse and government intrusion, and it has lots of techniques it can use against you. Although the ruling only specifically referred to collection of phone records, if the verdict ultimately leads to the practice becoming illegal it would almost certainly be a fatal blow to the NSA’s already-weak creditability; probably leading to the department’s permanent closure.
NSA has been tapping domestic communications for years, something that originally came to light in 2006 with PRISM and AT&T’s infamous Room 641A. The “interception room”, which was operated at the request of the NSA, captured communications from AT&T’s networks, processed them, stored them, and then forward them to the bureau for further analysis.
The system was ended after a class action lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. Over time it transpired that major tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, and Skype had all been part of the surveillance and had wilfully handed over details of their users when requested to do so.
It means if you live in the US, you’ve probably been “watched” at some point, and even those outside the US could find themselves on various government lists – the NSA can spy on almost anyone. The ending of the surveillance would be victory for privacy advocates everywhere.
On the flipside, could it reduce your safety? Is there not an argument for the retention of at least some surveillance powers? Barely a month goes by without us hearing about a thwarted terror plot – as recently as Mother’s Day news came out of Australia about police capturing a teenager who had planned to detonate three bombs in Melbourne city centre. While people may have just cause to being furious at their private communications being monitored, would they not be more furious if some of the 29 attempted terror attacks on US soil since 9/11 had been successful? Which is more valuable?
How Can You Protect Yourself?
At the moment it’s unclear if collection will end or not. Whatever the outcome, given the court didn’t force it to stop it’s likely to be years before we get a conclusion, as the unwieldy US legal and political systems lumber towards a final decision.
In the meantime, there are some measures you can take to help yourself avoid surveillance as much as possible.
For example, you could use Tor for supposedly anonymous browsing. While it’s certainly one of the best anonymous browsers and a lot better than using Google Chrome, the FBI still managed to hack it in late 2014 by using an abandoned Metasploit side project called the “Decloaking Engine”.
Similarly, you could use secure instant messaging apps that use end-to-end encryption and fully documented cryptography. You could even take this a step further by using apps like Silent Circle that also offer encrypted voice and email. The caveat here is that all your friends and family need to be using the same service to make it work.
Unfortunately, tools like temporary and fake email addresses don’t work – they are remarkable easy to trace and locate the sender.
Despite these tips, it’s worth remembering each of them makes your web browsing more cumbersome and time-consuming, and in practice would not stand up to much pressure if you came under serious investigation. One recent study found that because human mobility is so unique, the NSA only needed four location points to correctly identify a user 95 percent of the time. Is the time and energy spent on avoidance really worth it? You need to decide.
How do you see the future?
How do you see the future for the NSA? Does it have a future, or is this court ruling the beginning of the end? Are you happy with levels of surveillance remaining the same, or would you sacrifice safety for privacy?
As countries like the UK look to emulate the NSA with the recently announced “Snooper’s Charter”, should the United States not instead by championing the success of its project? Perhaps there is an argument that it’s merely a PR disaster, but the ethics and reasoning behind the project is valid – for example, would there have been such public outcry if the American government had been more open and said “this is what we are doing and why we are doing it” back in 2001?
As ever, we’d love your input. Let us know your thoughts on the court’s decision and your wider opinions about the NSA in the comments section below.
Featured Image Credit: Surveillance concept via Shutterstock