As I wrote in my last column, an expiry of the Patriot Act means nothing to what the NSA does or does not. They have been wiretapping phonecalls since at least 1976, and are in no way, shape, or form dependent on the Patriot Act which was enacted in 2001 – when they had already been doing this for 25 years. However, one thing has crucially changed, and that’s the ability to win against the NSA.
Right now, a game is playing out in US Congress where the NSA is seen as the problem child, rather than the custodian of safety. That attitude change is the enormous political win here – not the exact wording of laws that come out of the game.
The NSA will keep doing exactly what they have been doing, legal or not, for the simple reason that they can, and are getting away with it. Their work is so secretive, for whatever made-up reason, that they are not held accountable – nobody is able to hold them accountable. The NSA’s attitude is to the point where it’s reminiscent of caricature antagonists in games.
“We do what we must, because we can.” — Aperture Science
But two things come out of this debate, no matter what the ultimate outcome on May 31 with regard to the infamous Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Two good things.
First, it is possible to win politically against the NSA, even if it won’t change wiretapping in practice short-term because of their inertia, hubris, and feelings of untouchability. Such a win is an enormous sign of progress, and an enormous morale boost. The small victories here are important; every long walk starts with a single step, and those steps should be heartfeltly celebrated.
Second, the NSA is no longer immune to political pressure. It’s easy to observe that when the core problem is that the NSA don’t care what the law says, the whole solution cannot be to just change what the law says. However, changing the law to say what the NSA cannot do, in combination with the NSA being a problem child, leads logically to step 2 – putting them (and other surveillance agencies) under political and judicial scrutiny.
One step at a time. One victory at a time. Maybe, after all, we can still save the Internet and civil liberties.
Meanwhile, your privacy remains your own responsibility.