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Update on the USA Freedom Act

The USA Freedom act was approved by the House Judiciary Committee at the end of April, 2015.  There is a hope and indeed many human rights organisation have stated that the Act should be passed as soon as possible to stop the collection of bulk communications data, the expanse of surveillance and improve transparency of the US intelligence services.

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The USA Freedom Act is designed to stop the domestic bulk collection of both communication and phone records.    Over the last few months and largely thanks to Edward Snowden, the US government has been collecting millions of phone records of innocent civilians justified by a very loose interpretation of the USA Patriot Act (section 215 specifically).

It’s not a complete solution but merely a first step towards reining in the huge surveillance program that is currently in place in the USA.   the mass violations of people’s privacy may have continued without our knowledge if it wasn’t for the revelations of Edward Snowden which began now nearly 2 years ago.   There are still many areas of concern for human rights, which the USA Freedom Act doesn’t begin to address, at least there will be a statutory foundation for future reforms.

Human Rights Watch spokespeople urged the Act to be passed as soon as possible, without any modifications which would weaken it’s protection.    The situation is further complicated by the fact that section 215 of the USA PAtriot Act is set to expire on June 1st 2015, but it is expected without the Freedom Act that the Patriot Act would be extended without implementing any further privacy provisions.

There are of course concerns that the bill won’t be passed at all, in fact several versions of the Freedom act have been introduced and debated heavily in Congress.  Most of these happened in 2014 and they were not enacted, fortunately most of the key reforms involved in the 2014 Act have been carried over to the 2015 version.

Section 215 gives intelligence authorities the power to acquire data and records which could be relevant to an investigation.  This is of course a very loose definition and is subject to huge variations in interpretation.  Imagine that someone uses a VPN to encrypt their connection or simply to watch something like Hulu or the BBC iPlayer like this system – http://iplayerusa.org/index.php/proxy-to-access-bbc-iplayer-abroad/. This example could use by the agencies to investigate the encryption involved in using these tools, or simply include the records because they are being actively hidden. Millions of innocent people use these tools every day, are they relevant to such investigations because of this.

The Act strengthens these requirements, so that wholesale mass collection becomes much more difficult. The idea is that a specific selection term must be defined – that is a term which identifies a specific account or personal device which is deemed to be linked with some sort of terrorism or criminal activity.

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