Robert Ehlert: Privacy, safety still relative after NSA redo

So now that both chambers of Congress have passed these National Security Agency reforms and President Barack Obama has signed the USA Freedom Act, why don’t I feel so safe?

Why am I uncomfortable with this deal: less peace of mind for privacy?

There was this time before 9/11 when we all felt safer than perhaps we had a right to feel. It took a national tragedy 14 years ago this September to alert us that we had been, and remain, at war with terrorists — most of whom are identified by anti-American ideology and the borderless terrian where they hole up. We have been under attack as far back and even before the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing. That was personal. That’s when I lost a buddy, a U.S. Marine who had stayed at my house on one of his last nights in the country before shipping out of the Norfolk, Va., area on his deployment.

Though parts of the Patriot Act were reauthorized Tuesday, and one could argue enhanced and modernized, I wonder whether we are going to regret that the whole package was not renewed. Yes, the bill signed into law increases the maximum penalty for those who materially support terrorism from 15 to 20 years, and extends to December 2019 the expiration of three Patriot Act provisions: Section 215, roving wiretaps and lone wolf surveillance authority.

But let’s not pretend it did not diminish our ability to rapidly go after critical telecommunications and Internet metadata while in pursuit of information about suspected terrorist activity.

As someone who is comfortable with a means-to-an-end philosophy when it comes to national security and the potential sacrifice of some of my privacy, I think we may live to regret removing a tool from the NSA toolbox — or at least making it more difficult to access when time is of the essence.

As Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, reminded me during a telephone conversation Tuesday just after voting against the USA Freedom Act, the NSA was never listening in on our telephone conversations. Risch, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that oversees national security activity, said NSA was collecting information on the telephone number that was called, the number it was called from, the time and date of the call, and the call’s duration. There was no identification of the phone user in this bulk data.

Unless you were a suspect, that kind of data doesn’t out anything about me or you, or infringe upon our privacy by betraying it or any conversation to someone else. But it does allow the government to rapidly connect the dots and communications of suspected bad guys. It did alert authorities in the event someone was making calls to Syria, for instance.

During that regrettable Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, last month — when two would-be terrorists arrived to take revenge on the participants of this sideshow masquerading as a First Amendment demonstration — the telephones of the ISIS sympathizers killed were immediately mined for other terrorist-linked connections, thanks to the system we don’t want anymore.

Under the new setup, our government might have to go through the hoops of courts and layers of protocols of dozens of telephone companies to find out what telephone numbers such lone wolf suspects might be in contact with.

That is how things stand. But not to worry.

We’ll have the allusion of having our privacy — as long as we don’t probe too deeply about the personal and financial information stockpiled by hackers and collected by other federal agencies such as the IRS and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

What’s CFPB? That’s the Sen. Elizabeth Warren brainchild that came out of her Obama administration days following the Dodd-Frank reforms. In order to do its mission to protect consumers, CFPB collects oodles of information on consumer credit and mortgage transactions. Another government agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, recommended in a Sept. 2014 report that CFPB needs some work on privacy protection.

What price privacy?

That is an excellent and evolving question. I’m just afraid that the original overreaction that begot the Patriot Act has been trumped with the overreaction of the USA Freedom Act.

But I could just be overreacting.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho