This Sunday marks an important date for those of us interested in the United States of America’s ability to use “domestic surveillance” powers, which are due to lapse. An article carried by the New York times quotes a senior administration official as saying, “What you’re doing, essentially, is you’re playing national security Russian roulette,” when asked about letting the powers of domestic surveillance lapse. It is believed that with the USA Freedom Act stalled because of the congressional recess. Another unnamed individual said that, “we’re in uncharted waters. We have not had to confront addressing the terrorist threat without these authorities, and it’s going to be fraught with unnecessary risk.” The measure has been left in limbo after last Saturday when the Memorial Day break started because the Act fell short by three votes of the sixty needed to advance to the senate floor. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has called a Sunday session. However, time is running out and as at the time of writing, there is no sign of a breakthrough.
This measure is used to overhaul how the National Security Agency (NSA) use of part of the Patriot Act, passed after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, which justifies the collection of telephone metadata (this being, information about ‘phone numbers called and the times of these calls). The data is kept by ‘phone companies rather than the records and the information is accessible via the NSA through a search warrant. Following the Edward Snowden exposure, which detailed the extent of these surveillance measures, the matter has become more complicated because the federal appeals court ruled earlier in May that the telephone records program is illegal. Another power that is scheduled to expire this weekend is the government’s ability to obtain a multiuse order, the “roving wiretrap,” designed to track a terrorist or spy frequently switching ‘phones in order to avoid detection. The roving wiretrap is a tool the FBI could use to trap a “lone wolf” terrorist suspect; that is, an individual suspected to be linked to terrorist activity but not associated with any particular group.
As this power is set to expire on Sunday, the NSA has a team on “hot standby” and has provided telecommunications companies with an action plan. At 1539 hours the agency will start shutting down servers that run the program and revoking access to its databases. Rebooting access would take around a day and entails going back to the telecommunication providers with a court order.