Staff Columnist

Grassley, Ernst fall one vote short in push to limit surveillance powers

Plus: Tips for protecting your web browsing data from government creeps

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) (from left) answers a question as U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) looks on during a pres
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) (from left) answers a question as U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) looks on during a press availability after a breakfast with the Linn Eagles at the Cedar Rapids Country Club in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Innocent Americans soon could have their entire internet browsing history swept up by the federal surveillance state.

The U.S. Senate last week passed a bill to reauthorize surveillance powers under the Patriot Act and USA Freedom Act. Those are unpatriotic and anti-freedom laws allowing the government to capture vast amounts of private information, ostensibly in pursuit of terrorists.

The reauthorization allows warrantless collection of web browsing data. An amendment to protect against that practice was supported by Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, but fell just one vote short of the required threshold.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects our “persons, houses, papers and effects” from unreasonable searches. In the information age, it’s hard to think of a better example of “papers” than records of our internet activity.

Browsing history reveals sensitive information, even for those of us who are not terrorists — medical history, immigration status, drug use, travel plans, political views, pornography preferences and romantic relationships, to name a few.

In some cases, browsing data captured by the government could be stored, potentially exposing it to hackers and other bad actors.

“Every thought that can come into people’s heads can be revealed in an internet search or a visit to a website,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who introduced the failed amendment to remove the blanket web browser surveillance. “… Collecting this information is as close to reading minds as surveillance can get. It is digital mining of the personal lives of Americans.”

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Our smartphones and home computers are windows into the most personal details of our lives. If we leave the curtains open, government agents can easily peer in. Data privacy experts have some tips for covering up those windows.

How to protect your internet activity:

• Secure websites. Reputable websites use a secure protocol, making them more difficult to surveil. Modern browsers note websites’ security status, often displayed in the URL bar with a padlock icon.

• Secure browsers. Not all web browsers have the same security features. Two free products that are popular among privacy advocates are Brave and DuckDuckGo.

• VPN. A virtual protocol network encrypts data and routes it through private servers, making it difficult or impossible for outsiders to track activity. Most VPNs charge a small monthly or annual fee.

It’s important to know that even the best personal privacy measures are merely hurdles for government creeps, not insurmountable roadblocks. Unfortunately, the only way to ensure your digital privacy is to abstain from using the internet.

The new web surveillance powers come about at a peculiar time. Not unlike when the Patriot Act was passed — in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — this pandemic has left people grasping for anything to make them feel secure.

Government officials and concerned citizens are asking how they can use technology to track infectious diseases. Health information databases and devices to more closely monitor our movement seem inevitable.

Americans should be wary of expanding surveillance capability. Once those powers are in place, they can’t be easily clawed back.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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