The USA PATRIOT Act is set to expire June first, absent congressional action. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has expressed opposition to renewing the act without reforms that would end or limit the National Security Agency’s bulk spying on the phone data of American citizens. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seeks an extension for the act as is, Senate Democrats and some Republicans, including Rand Paul, threaten to filibuster a renewal without reforms. This follows a Federal Court ruling that the NSA’s mass phone data collection program, exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013, is illegal. The House has responded by passing USA Freedom Act, which would end the phone surveillance program, but expand other surveillance programs and reauthorize the Patriot Act.
With this bill heading to the Senate, critics such as Fight For the Future, argue that, “It completely fails to meaningfully curtail mass surveillance and actually codifies some of the worst modern spying practices into law.” One example they bring up is that the bill would permit surveillance of video chats. It is also generally accepted that the surveillance state will take any bill that is passed to its limits as it did with the PATRIOT Act. This is especially true if the state can do so in secret, as it did before Snowden’s revelation.
A recent ACLU survey revealed a near universal support for curtailing the surveillance activities of the NSA, among potential voters. Yet the Senate Republican leadership’s desire to leave the PATRIOT Act shows the disconnect between the average American and high ranking politicians. Government spying on millions of Americans not only violates our purported right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, it does nothing to keep anyone safe. Americans do not wish to live in an Orwellian dystopia where the government is privy to all our communications and free to use the information as it pleases. The US government has a long ugly history of lying to its citizens, supporting murderous dictatorships, engaging in unethical human experiments, subverting peaceful opposition, and generally being unaccountable to its population. This is the nature of governments and it will only be made worse if large scale spying on ordinary people is permitted.
Secretive state agencies are not to be trusted, nor are the politicians that have ties to them. It is highly unlikely the state is going to voluntarily end its unethical spying programs without massive pressure from the public. The state is a largely unaccountable entity with a monopoly on coercive violence that entitles it to violate the rights it claims to protect. While the state itself should ultimately be rolled back, its surveillance wing is a good place to start. In the meantime mechanisms such as encryption can protect our data from unwelcome eyes, and open expressions of opposition will keep the state surveillance programs to busy for their own good.