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Undermine mass surveillance with free software and your phone calls

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Jan 10, 2018 05:08 PM
UPDATE: The bill was passed by the House of Representatives and has now moved on to the Senate, where a vote is expected on January 16. Tell your Senators that the bill—S. 139—fails to protect your constitutional rights to privacy!

On Thursday, January 11, the US House of Representatives is expected to vote to extend and expand an act enabling the National Security Agency's (NSA) spying, allowing them to continue to surveil Americans' digital communications without a warrant while conducting bulk surveillance activities.

Introduced just a few days ago, the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 attempts to both renew and expand Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. You can read the bill here. While the NSA's surveillance practices are supposed to be reserved for non-Americans, they use this bill to justify monitoring the electronic communication of Americans associated with non-citizens. The FSF opposes this bill, both for its apparent violation of Americans' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and because it enables bulk surveillance by US government intelligence agents.

In addition to renewing Section 702, this bill also aims to expand its scope. As it stands, the NSA can collect emails both to and from a non-US person not living in the US. The messages are stored in databases that can be searched and read without a warrant, even when Americans are involved in the communications. The proposed expansion of Section 702 would make this ugly little loophole permanent, only requiring a warrant for such searches once a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or other intelligence agent has found enough information to launch a formal investigation.

Finally, the bill would renew an NSA practice that was abandoned last year: "about" collection. With this type of data collection, the NSA collects any digital communications -- not just communications that are "to" or "from" a targeted person, but simply "about" them (for example, an email between two other people that mentions the targeted person's name), making the collection even broader.

The Free Software Foundation sees this type of bulk surveillance as a freedom issue that can be resisted by using free software for email encryption, private Web browsing, and decentralized, trustworthy online systems. As the Internet has become increasingly centralized, more and more people have relinquished control over their computing to remotely hosted systems and to Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS), remotely-hosted programs that exchange data with users to do computing that they could do on their own machines. In both cases, you cannot see what these servers are doing with your data -- and you have no way of verifying that the host is respecting your freedom. But these companies often submit to governments when they ask for your information, whether it's ostensibly to fight terrorism or to stop unauthorized copying. For more on why bulk surveillance is a software freedom issue and how to take action, read on.

Action in the United States

Those of you in the United States can call Congress today. Here's a call script:

Hello, I live in CITY, STATE. I am calling to urge you to vote against the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017. The NSA and FBI should not be allowed to surveil Americans without a warrant, or to carry out bulk surveillance of anyone. Thank you for your time.

Who should you call?

  • Find your Representative and call them.
  • Dial the House of Representatives' switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and they will connect you.

Action for everyone

  • Read more about why mass surveillance is a software freedom issue and what you can do about it.
  • Encrypting our personal communication makes bulk surveillance more difficult and protects the people we communicate with, so if you don't already encrypt your emails, check out Email Self-Defense, our beginner's guide to email encryption.
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