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Snowden leaks after one year: Wrangling over the meaning of 'bulk'

Grant Gross | June 9, 2014
A debate in the U.S. about whether the National Security Agency should end its bulk collection of U.S. telephone and business records has come down to an argument over the meaning of the word "bulk."

The USA Freedom Act may not even pass the Senate, however. During the hearing Thursday, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned whether they should pass even the scaled-back version of the USA Freedom Act because its limits on the NSA would endanger national security, those senators argued.

Little change in policy

The result is that, one year after Snowden's leaks, a heated debate continues about the appropriate role of government surveillance, but there has been little change in U.S. policy.

While Congress and Obama have taken measured steps toward reining in the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, the NSA continues to operate the program. Policymakers, however, have taken almost no action, beyond a general statement from Obama that foreigners should have privacy rights, to limit the NSA's surveillance programs targeting overseas electronic communications.

The lack of action in Washington is disappointing and harms the U.S. tech industry the longer nothing happens, said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank. The leaks about NSA spying worldwide have soured much of the rest of the world on the use of U.S. IT products, he said.

The Snowden leaks have forced a national conversation that's necessary and important, but policymakers "haven't waved the flag and said, 'what was happening before will not happen again,'" Castro said.

While some policy debates in Washington, D.C., take years to play out, speed is important in this case, as other nations look for alternatives to U.S. tech products, Castro said. "There's basically a clock on this," he said. "If you don't address this in a certain period of time, you lose out on long-term competitiveness. Every day you don't address this, you're losing out."

Castro doesn't expect the controversy over the surveillance to die down. "It's defining the brand of American tech companies as something that is both insecure and available to government surveillance," he said. "Once you're branded a certain way, it's really hard to shake."

This week, the CEOs of nine major U.S. tech vendors — including Facebook, Google and Apple — wrote a letter to senators, calling on them to strengthen the USA Freedom Act.

"Confidence in the Internet, both in the U.S. and internationally, has been badly damaged over the last year," the letter said. "It is time for action. As the Senate takes up this important legislation, we urge you to ensure that U.S. surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent, and subject to independent oversight."

Praise for Snowden

Many civil liberties advocates have praised Snowden's actions, saying the information he leaked to news organizations has ignited a much-needed debate on privacy and government surveillance.


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