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Editorial: Bring national-security surveillance in check

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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On the heels of a recent hacking of 10 large U.S. financial institutions, including JP Morgan Chase, Washington is trying to push piecemeal legislation through Congress to improve our nation’s cybersecurity. Rather than pushing for a single large bill, the Obama administration has focused its efforts on micro-legislation to improve the likelihood of the bills’ passing. While this system seems efficient and logical, precautions must be taken to ensure we don’t give such security agencies as the Homeland Security Department or the NSA dangerous amounts of power as we have in the past.

The current legislation the administration seeks would improve the efficiency of Homeland Security’s ability to work with private companies to prevent cyber attacks such as the one that recently affected several U.S. banks. This legislation also aims to increase the agency’s legal authority to prevent cyberterrorism and to increase its staff size to reduce the systems’ hackers exploit to break into secure data. Here lies the issue. “Increasing legal authority” just means that the agency will be able to do more things that were previously illegal, including private data monitoring, wiretapping, and invasions of privacy.

Essentially, the legislation can provide a gateway for the violation of our basic constitutional rights in ways that are reminiscent of the NSA scandal of recent years. While the NSA operated in technical legal obscurity, its privacy violations — both domestic and international — are very clear.

In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents proving the NSA was collecting raw metadata on Americans’ Internet and phone traffic in addition to actual content of emails, Facebook posts, instant messages, and phone calls. Despite obvious violations of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, the NSA is still technically allowed to continue doing this, as long as it adheres to the loose guidelines and loophole-filled rules in place.

Thankfully, legislation to limit the NSA’s power is being considered by Congress. The USA Freedom Act aims to end the collection of American citizens’ metadata and limit such programs as PRISM, the NSA program that collects and stores vast amounts of electronic data on national and international levels. This act would also limit the recording of phone calls to very specific circumstances and allow companies such as Google and Facebook to legally disclose government demands for users’ private data.

The actions of the NSA have proven detrimental in tangible respects. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, U.S. tech companies may lose an estimated $35 billion by 2016 because of tarnished reputations from government spying. One proposed fix to this is to tie data hosting to the location of the source. This would mean that a company would have to store a user’s data in its respective country of origin. Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch says, “The Internet is a medium without borders, and the notion you’d have to place data and data centers used to serve particular countries within the region is fundamentally at odds with the way the Internet is architected.” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt agreed, saying, “I think the simplest outcome is we’re going to end up breaking the Internet.”

The DI Editorial Board believes there is a delicate balance to be reached in regard to national security and basic constitutional rights. America’s experiences with the NSA should act as a lesson for the future. The citizenry needs to voice its support for legislation such as the USA Freedom Act while maintaining security agencies’ authority enough to protect us. This balance will be hard to achieve, but Congress can start by bringing us closer to center with the USA Freedom Act.


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