Politics Technology

Who Watches the Watchers? Now You Can

Decide The Future
Written by Ethan M. Long

The American public now has a comprehensive set of scores for each member of Congress regarding their positions on Internet surveillance reform, thanks to a website launched today as a joint project between nonprofit activist groups Restore the Fourth and Fight for the Future.

The Political Scoreboard takes into account critical legislative votes that have taken place during the 114th United States Congress’ time in office, bearing in mind each member’s action, how they voted, and which, if any, legislation they decided to sponsor.

This is the second such scoreboard produced. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, with support from numerous organizations, launched Stand Against Spying in 2014.

According to Alex Marthews, National Chair of Restore the Fourth, there was a need to provide an updated version because the information stops before the 2014 elections.

Marthews cites a lack of information available for EFF’s Stand Against Spying.

“There wasn’t enough data to go on to rank a lot of the members, particularly Senators,” he said, “so, a lot of the Senators had question marks by them. There just wasn’t enough tangible voting information to see where they stood.”

The Political Scoreboard, uses the EFF’s effort, “but then massively expands and updates it,” according to Marthews.

Since Edward Snowden leaked classified documents regarding surveillance programs funded by the National Security Agency, truths have been revealed to the American public about how their digital lives are tracked. They’ve read stories about bulk data collection of metadata, texts, e-mails, and an overall broad range of their daily activities.

It’s a subject that has all sides of the political spectrum talking. Privacy and freedom are guaranteed to all citizens through the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Digital privacy advocates like the EFF and Fight for the Future argue that because so much of our lives and our interactions are supported by the digital devices we have in our backpacks or pockets, that they’re really extensions of our home, in a 21st Century sense.

Therefore, if we care about our constitutional rights, it would be good if the politicians we vote for are those who recognize that our privacy rights extend to our data. The Political Scoreboard is an easy-to-use way to identify your legislators and see how they’ve voted in the past.

The website itself is extremely user-friendly. When it loads, the scoreboard is automatically set to identify which state you’re in. The headshots of your Congresswomen and men have large letter grades beside their faces. Clicking on them will bring up a box with their actions on surveillance reform, along with links to learn more about the individual pieces of legislation.

“Partly as a result of Edward Snowden,” Marthews notes, “there has been a very comprehensive set of votes in Congress indicating how members stand on surveillance reform.”

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The website takes these votes into account.

Congress has tried to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which gave power to intelligence agencies, 54 times since the Snowden revelations. During the George W. Bush administration, an act was passed by Congress which amended FISA. This, as Marthews wrote in 2012, “retroactively immunized telecommunications companies from liability relating to their blatant disregard of laws intended to keep Americans’ phone calls secret. It allowed the executive branch to spy on Americans’ communications and retain their content, provided that the intent was to capture the content of communications with foreign nationals relating to terrorism.”

Another vote taken into account regarded “a provision of the Patriot act called Section 215, that authorized the phone metadata dragnet,” according to Marthews, who said it was set to expire on May 30.

“As a result of that sunset that was coming up, there was a huge rush by Congress to try and reauthorize something to maybe reform the surveillance state a little, but mostly to authorize surveillance powers and that was bodied forth in an act called the USA Freedom Act,” he said.

On the site, politicians are sorted into two columns: “Team Internet,” and “Team Surveillance.” Some, however, who have received a “C” grade, remain in the “Undecided” box.

Take for example Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She voted against extending and reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act, but also sponsored the FISA Improvements Act, which was an attempt to codify the legality of NSA surveillance programs. Feinstein’s bill was called a “fake fix” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in an opposition letter. The negative points she gets for her support of this bill and of others are balanced with the points she gained for other votes, thus giving her a neutral score.

This is a multi-part article

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About the author

Ethan M. Long

Ethan Long is a journalist based out of Boston, MA.

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Who Watches the Watchers? Now You Can

by Ethan M. Long
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