If the Federal Communications Commission and Net Neutrality battles weren’t bad enough, here’s the next chapter of the American struggle for internet freedom. This Wednesday, the Senate voted on Patriot Act amendments, and the one that didn’t pass was the one that would have prevented FBI agents from spying on your online activities without a warrant or notice. This means that if you’re living in the US, your privacy just took a hit.
What is going on?
The US Senate has already approved a reauthorization of the infamous Patriot Act, which is due to be renewed this week. However, the Senate also considered adding several amendments. Hearing sessions and voting was scheduled for this Wednesday. Senators Steve Daines and Ron Wyden offered an Amendment. Albeit consisting only of several lines, this amendment would have prevented authorities from warrantless collection of browsing history logs. Sadly, they were one vote short of the required 60 to pass the Amendment.
This means the final version is going to be passed without this amendment, which is bad news for your privacy. The authorities won’t even need probable cause – suspicion will be more than enough to get your online history.
To make matters worse, the law is vague enough to allow just about anything to be labeled as suspicious activity. In effect, the FBI will be within its rights contacting your ISP, demanding your browsing history without any evidence. That data can also potentially be stored in their data centers and used against you in the future. This is a step towards a police state.
What is the Patriot Act?
After the September 11 attacks, overnight the Congress passed surveillance laws that vastly expanded the ways in which the government could spy on its citizens to battle terrorism. The most notable of these are two sections that authorize surveillance – Section 215 and Section 218. The former allows the government to obtain a FISA court order demanding third-parties to hand over any information deemed relevant to a terrorism, counterespionage, or foreign intelligence investigation. Meanwhile, the latter lowers the bar for launching foreign intelligence surveillance.
If you have ever heard about the Five Eyes alliance, think of Section 218 as one of the things that enables this alliance and allows the surveillance of US citizens.
Section 215 came under hard fire after Edward Snowden revealed to the public how it is interpreted and used in reality. After his leaks, it became clear how the law was being used to conduct secret surveillance of Americans.
However, when the Patriot Act had to be renewed in 2015, Congress made several reforms in response to the public outcry of the Snowden leaks. This is how the USA Freedom Act came into being, limiting the excessive surveillance powers. It set limits on how much data could be collected in bulk, increased transparency into how it was being stored and used. Sadly, the Patriot Act has been renewed once more. So, it seems that after the dust has settled, we’re back to square one.
How can you protect your privacy?
All the surveillance abuses that have come to light in recent years show that if you’re US citizen, you should start looking into privacy tools that could make your online surfing more private. The FBI isn’t going to hack you themselves, but they may ask for your online browsing logs from your ISP.
So, your objective #1 is making sure that your ISP knows nothing nothing about where you’re going in cyberspace and what you’re doing once you’re online. One of the best ways you can do this is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). With this software, you’ll be able to connect to any of the provider’s servers scattered all around the world. The connection is encrypted and inaccessible to any third parties. Just consider investing in a VPN provider that isn’t also located in the US or any of the Five Eyes countries, limiting the government’s ability to get to your data.
Don’t think that these events don’t concern you because you have nothing to hide. This is an issue of your basic rights. Lets not forget the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The fact that there are bills that bypass the fourth amendment should be cause of concern in itself. If you’re protective of your home and have the right not to be disturbed in it, why should your cyberlife be an open book to anyone who would like a peek?