Section 215 of the US Patriot Act has been in the headlines a lot lately. This controversial section was used by the US intelligence agencies to scoop up large quantities of US phone records, among other things. The section had a sunset clause and needed to be renewed periodically, with the latest deadline at midnight May 31st 2015. The renewal has previously been a rubber-stamp thing, but not this time. Section 215 has expired and been replaced by the Freedom Act, which is supposed to be more restrictive and better protect our privacy. And that made it headline news globally.
But what does this mean in practice? Is this the end of the global surveillance Edward Snowden made us aware of? How significant is this change in reality? These are questions that aren’t necessary answered by the news coverage.
Let’s keep this simple and avoid going into details. Section 215 was just a part in a huge legal and technical surveillance system. The old section 215 allowed very broad secret warrants to be issued by FISA courts using secret interpretations of the law, forcing companies to hand over massive amounts of data about citizens’ communications. All this under gag orders preventing anyone to talk about it or even seek legal advice. The best known example was probably the bulk collection of US phone records. It’s not about tapping phones, rather about keeping track of who called whom at what time. People in US could quite safely assume that if they placed calls, NSA had them on record.
The replacing Freedom Act still allows a lot of surveillance, but aims to restrict the much criticized mass surveillance. Surveillance under Freedom Act needs to be more specified than under Section 215. Authorities can’t just tell a tele operator to hand over all phone records to see if they can find something suspicious. Now they have to specify an individual or a device they are interested in. Tele operators must store certain data about all customers, but only hand over the requested data. That’s not a problem, it is pretty much data that the operators have to keep anyway for billing purposes.
This sounds good on paper, but reality may not be so sunny. First, Freedom Act is a new thing and we don’t know yet how it will work in practice. Its interpretation may be more or less privacy friendly, time will tell. The surveillance legislation is a huge and complex wholeness. A specific kind of surveillance may very well be able to continue sanctioned by some other paragraph even if section 215 is gone. It’s also misleading when media reports that the section 215 intelligence stopped on June 1st. In reality it continues for at least six months, maybe longer, to safeguard ongoing investigations.
So the conclusion is that the practical impact of this mini reform is a lot less significant than what we could believe based on the headlines. It’s not the end of surveillance. It doesn’t guarantee privacy for people using US-based services. It is however an important and welcome signal that the political climate in US is changing. It’s a sign of a more balanced view on security versus basic human rights. Let’s hope that this climate change continues.
Image by Christian Holmér