Don’t Reform the Surveillance State, Route Around It

Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed something called “the USA Freedom Act.” The bill was intended by its authors to end the National Security Agency’s broad and privacy-shredding bulk data collection program, but the final version that passed is so weak that bulk data collection will still be permitted.

Trevor Timm at the Guardian writes, “in a compromise that moved the formerly strong legislation out of committee and into action, the bill was weakened significantly: in came more immunity for telecoms, and out went tough transparency and provisions for the Fisa court, along with protections against warrantless “backdoor” searches of your communications.”

The bill was later watered down further, widening NSA’s search powers and placing even more power in the hands of the Director of National Intelligence.

The bill’s original backers dropped their support for the USA Freedom Act.  “Under the finalized floor version of the USA Freedom Act, it would be completely legal for the NSA to request all records for an area code, zip code, or even all of the emails for accounts that start with the letter ‘A,’ all without a warrant,” US Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) says. Many civil liberties groups also abandoned support for the bill.

These developments are disappointing, but not surprising. This is how government works. Bills are passed largely through logrolling, a process of give and take where propositions supported by different ideologies or interest groups are put together under one bill to increase its chance of passing. So bills originally intended to protect civil liberties often have provisions added to secure the support of hawks, statists and surveillance enthusiasts.

Moreover, the state tends to secure its own interests and those of concentrated special interest groups first and foremost. Bills that pose a substantial threat to the NSA, their telecom company collaborators or profiteers like Booz Allen Hamilton will tend to be eroded or defeated due to the power of these predatory interest groups. Or worse, they will be twisted to serve the interests of these oligarchs.

Legislative reform is a dead end, but there’s a better way. We can route around the state, thwart its surveillance efforts, and make it progressively harder to intercept and watch our communications. A coalition of civil liberties groups, progressive advocacy organizations and libertarian organizations is urging people to do just that. They’re calling it Reset the Net. On June 5th, they urge Internet users and web developers to begin using a wide variety of internet security tools to thwart the NSA. These tools include everything from open source encryption protocols to anonymity services like Tor. Reset the Net’s privacy pack specifically offers open source tools because these tools allow any user to test, verify and improve their security. Tools like this can be installed, designed and improved by any individual, with no permission needed from any government.

Reset the Net is an inspiring example of mainstream civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum embracing the anarchist tactic of direct action. Rather than begging governments to limit themselves or pass benevolent reforms, direct action takes change into our own hands without asking permission.

Direct action allows us to route around the state, to make its mass surveillance operations much more difficult to perpetuate. This is how we can and must end state criminality. Not by reforming the state, but by treating it as damage and routing around.

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