While the USA PATRIOT Act once ruled headlines, it’s since been superseded by the USA FREEDOM Act. In this article, we’re going to highlight the main changes it brought about, but be prepared for disappointment if you are expecting anything substantive.
The Freedom Act is an attempt to revise the Patriot Act, which was enacted in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks and meant to combat terrorism. The Patriot Act never netted a terrorist, but the government still used the legislation as an excuse to expand its electronic surveillance programs.
Until whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that the government was abusing the law, the public was largely unaware that the government had taken such an interest in their private data.
The Patriot Act authorized programs such as PRISM, Tempora and Dishfire, which collected information about phone calls, text messages and online activities like they were shopping at Costco. They collected data in bulk and typically without proof that the people involved were doing anything illegal.
While America’s programs didn’t amount to outright censorship, as in China, they did present substantial concerns about individual freedoms and security. While President Barack Obama took the stance that Americans were better off not knowing that the government was spying on them, the public outcry stemming from Snowden’s revelations forced him to act.
Congressional Support for the Freedom Act
Obama pushed the Freedom Act as an improvement to the Patriot Act and as a way to reassure the public that the government wasn’t after their data, even if the latter claim wasn’t true.
The act had broad bipartisan support in the Senate: 23 Republicans, 43 Democrats and one independent voted for it. Only one Democrat, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin opposed it. Thirty Republicans opposed it, including Orrin Hatch of Utah, John McCain of Arizona and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. One independent, Bernie Sanders, voted against it.
Obama signed the Freedom Act into law on June 2, 2015.
Given how many Democrats came out in favor of net neutrality when Ajit Pai’s FCC tried to ax it, it’s hard to understand why so many supported this bill, which falls short on similar grounds.
Since 2015, many things have changed in the American political landscape. Maybe those Democratic senators thought the bill would do more to protect individual security and privacy.
What Does the Freedom Act Do?
The Freedom Act revises the Patriot Act and reduces the government’s surveillance capabilities, though it fails to make significant changes that protect privacy.
For instance, the Freedom Act ended the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone call data in bulk. Before the law, the NSA could compel cell phone providers to give it all data for all people in a zip code at once, which surely included more innocent people than potential terrorists.
Now, if the NSA wants someone’s phone data, it has to go before the FISA court and prove it has “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is linked to a terrorist organization.
While that might sound like an improvement, the court has a sordid history. It was formed in 1978. In theory, it’s impartial and the government has to prove that it needs the surveillance.
The FISA court approved 99.97 percent of all requests between 1978 and 2013, though, which casts doubt on how effectively it has protected Americans’ privacy.
That said, the Freedom Act does limit the scope of cell phone data that the NSA can collect, even with the apparent cooperation of the FISA court. Instead of collecting all the data it wants, the agency is limited by the act to people no more than two degrees removed, two hops in NSA speak, from the person of interest.
It requires the FISA court to publish any significant interpretations, as well, so that the public understands the criteria it uses to authorize surveillance. The court has to have “a panel of ‘amicus curiae,’ or advocates, to represent the public’s interest in cases that involve novel or significant legal issues.”
It is hard to understand why they didn’t expand that clause to cover all FISA cases, instead of just the “significant” ones. We all have an interest in privacy and, if we can’t advocate for ourselves, it would be nice to know someone is doing it on our behalves.
The best thing the Freedom Act did was allow companies to publicly report they have received a government request for your data. Relaxing the rules is a good thing, but the government requested more documents than ever after the act became law.
Despite claims that it would, the Freedom Act didn’t scale government surveillance back significantly. That makes it politically expedient, but not effective.
The problem is that the Freedom Act still casts too wide a net. More innocent people will have their data examined by the government than guilty ones and the lack of due process means the public can’t control what the government can access.
Overall, the Freedom Act isn’t very interested in freedom. It doesn’t protect privacy by emphasizing targeted, reasonable surveillance. Instead, it paints with strokes only slightly narrower than its predecessor’s.
The sad fact is that no matter how much you try to walk on the straight and narrow, the government is going to get its hands on your data. If you don’t like the sound of that, there are steps you can take to make yourself safer.
One of the easiest things you can do is invest in a virtual private network. VPNs disguise how your traffic is routed through the Internet, so it’s harder for the government or other organizations to figure out who is sending and receiving information.
They also make it harder for cybercriminals to gain access to your data, which lowers the chances of having your identity stolen or experiencing a data breach.
We have an article on the best VPNs for the U.S., as well as a list of the best VPN providers, period, for our global friends. What do you think of the Freedom Act? Did it make things better or worse? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.