Passage of the latest coronavirus relief measure gave Americans something to celebrate in the darkest hours of the pandemic. Surprisingly, the Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA) for 2021—which was included in the coronavirus law—also gave privacy advocates something to celebrate.
Early versions of this year’s IAA left much to be desired. PPSA, along with our allied pro-civil liberties organizations, stood against the worst of the overreaches found in early versions of the bill. With the support of our followers and strong coalition building, PPSA played a role in striking some of the most harmful aspects of the original version of the IAA.
First, the recently passed version of the IAA dropped the requirement for the creation of a Social Media Data and Threat Analysis Center.
This troubling idea, which contained no commensurate requirements for internal guardrails or guidelines, could have easily turned into the Political Threat Analysis Center. PPSA recognized this danger and joined with a number of like-minded organizations such as Demand Progress, FreedomWorks and the ACLU in writing a bipartisan letter to House leadership that played a meaningful role in the removal of this provision.
Second, the advocacy of our coalition might have also played a role in the dropping of an FBI informant hotline aimed at purported espionage activity by Asian-Americans. While the threat of spies sent or recruited by the People’s Republic of China is very real, PPSA is firm in its belief that a Stasi-style informant system risks doing more harm to civil liberties than good. Instead, PPSA supports the included requirement that the impacts of surveillance on the civil liberties of Chinese-Americans be studied annually.
Third, we won a major defensive victory when the final version of the IAA dropped language stating that it is “the sense of Congress” that intelligence agencies are authorized to conduct any needed surveillance not specifically precluded by law.
Such a provision would have essentially enshrined the worst interpretations of Executive Order 12333. While PPSA is thankful for the removal of this language, this is more of a Dunkirk than a D-Day. We must remain vigilant against those who view EO 12333 as a license for unfettered executive branch spying.
Overall, the state of surveillance in 2021 should give privacy advocates reason to feel optimistic. Meaningful change has been accomplished while harmful provisions have been prevented.
In the wake of the disgraceful attack on the U.S. Capitol, we point out that existing investigative tools are allowing law enforcement to arrest the rioters and ring leaders. We should be skeptical of any attempt to use that assault, as heinous as it was, as the basis for yet another anti-terrorism law that subverts the U.S. Constitution.
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