Civil Liberties Groups Will Push Next President For Stronger Surveillance Reforms

Posted Nov. 2, 2016

MP3 Interview with Sue Udry, executive director of the Defending Dissent Foundation, conducted by Scott Harris


After former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden publicly revealed details about U.S. spy agencies’ dragnet surveillance American’s communications, there was a push to enact reforms by both citizens and legislators. The USA Freedom Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on June 2, 2015, mandates that telecommunications companies, not the government, will store phone metadata. The legislation also demands increased transparency from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA Court, which has been criticized as a rubber stamp in approving government access to personal phone data. Under the new law, FISA Court judges will be allowed to, but not required, to appoint a “friend of the court” to argue on behalf of privacy concerns.

Despite these and other reforms that have been enacted, critics maintain that mass surveillance of Americans' communication continues under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A coalition of digital rights and civil liberties groups that have accused the NSA and the FBI of using Section 702's Internet program, codenamed PRISM, to surreptitiously surveil Americans, have called on Congress to let FISA Section 702 die when it expires on Dec. 31, 2017.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sue Udry, executive director of the Defending Dissent Foundation. Here, Udry discusses some of her group’s ongoing concerns about government surveillance, privacy and security that the next president will need to address. She also reviews the major party presidential candidate’s positions on these issues – and the reforms her group and other civil liberties activists will be advocating the next president and Congress adopt. [Rush transcript.]

SUE UDRY: So the agenda is long, but the focus, particularly on surveillance at the federal level, we've got the program that the NSA used to authorize their PRISM program, which was exposed by Ed Snowden. That's kind of the Internet surveillance program that is allowing the NSA to just scoop up vast amounts of traffic that goes over the Internet. The statute that authorizes that program is set to sunset January of 2018. That section is called Section 702 of the FISA Amendment Act which was passed back in 2008. We've got about a year to convince Congress that they should just let that sunset. And that's pretty unlikely, but it opens up the opportunity for us to talk about other needed reforms to surveillance with Congress and try to get them to pay attention to just the (vastness) of the way that the government at all levels is surveilling our lives.

So just to run down real quick some of the things that have just come to light in the past couple of years: the FBI is creating a massive biometric database called Next Generation Identification and they're getting access to biometric data of, for example, they have agreements with many states to be able to be scan our driver's license or state ID photos. They are collecting the photo IDs of every person who gets a visa into this country. They're looking at passport photos and they've also being able to gather other biometric data like – obviously fingerprints, but also iris scans and all sorts of very sci-fi sort of bits of our body are going into this massive FBI database. That's one huge thing at the federal level and then across the states, we've seen police using stingray (tracking) devices a lot more; automatic license plate readers; a huge, huge surge in surveillance cameras just on the street, so every time you walk outside, you just don't know if you're being recorded by a state surveillance camera.

So those are just a couple of the things that's we're worried about over the course of the next year.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So what do we know about Hillary Clinton's views on surveillance and the many groups and individuals around the country that are looking for reform and additional checks and balances on the government's power to surveil their communications?

SUE UDRY: Hillary has a record on this. We don't really know Donald Trump; who knows what he says and whether he believes what he says. But with Hillary, we actually have a voting record. Back in 2001, she did vote for the Patriot Act, and in general, she's not a hero on protecting our privacy. But she has done, actually, a couple of good things. In 2005, she voted against cutting off debate on whether or not to renew the Patriot Act Section 215. That's the section where the FBI is allowed to gather business records without a warrant and that have been used to authorize the NSA's bulk collection. So she voted against cutting off debate and then in 2008, she voted against the FISA Amendment Act, which is the bill that gave the NSA the broad authority to scoop up Internet communications, and that's also the bill that gave the telecoms legal immunity after we discovered about the huge amount of phone - how those telecoms were helping the FBI and NSA to spy on us. So she's done those good things.

But then, on the other hand, if you remember, back in 2010, I think it was, when WikiLeaks did the huge State Department documents. It was revealed that, in 2009, Clinton had personally ordered spying on U.N. diplomats, including Secretary Ban Ki-Moon and trying to get her people to collect things such as his Internet passwords and his DNA. So she's kind of creepy. She's done a couple of OK things on surveillance, but in general her statements in the campaign have not led one to believe that she's going to do very much to rein in either NSA or FBI surveillance of the Internet or phone.

For more information, visit the Defending Dissent Foundation at

Related Links:

Subscribe and get Between The Lines' Weekly Summary in your inbox!