After a long dormant stretch, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) has signaled it’s ready to tackle another big review of government surveillance and overreach. The PCLOB, an independent agency in the executive branch, last published a 2014 report on warrantless surveillance of the Internet by the U.S. intelligence community. While EFF welcomes the PCLOB’s efforts to bring oversight and transparency to the most controversial surveillance programs, we’ve disagreed with some of the Board’s findings, particularly on surveillance under FISA Section 702. So while it’s a good sign that the board is turning its attention to other major issues, its mixed history means it may be a little too soon to get your hopes up.
This week, the board, which was created after a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission to look into the violation of civil liberties, released a strategic plan [PDF] that does not shy away from investigating some of the biggest threats to privacy in the U.S. According to the document, they will be looking into the NSA’s collection of phone records, facial recognition and other biometric technologies being used in airport security, the processes that govern terrorist watchlist, what they call “deep dive” investigations into NSA’s XKEYSCORE tool and the CIA’s counterterrorism activity, as well as many other government programs and procedures.
It’s hard to say what the possible results of these inquiries can or will be. The PCLOB has the right to look into classified materials, as well as request written subpoenas from the Attorney General. In the past, however, PCLOB has been incredibly measured in their critique of mass surveillance programs. Their 2014 report, for instance, found that the Section 702 program is sound “at its core,” and provides “considerable value” in the fight against terrorism—despite going on to make ten massive recommendations for what the program must do to avoid infringing on people’s privacy. In other words, while finding serious privacy concerns with a program that vacuums up an untold number of Americans’ phone data, it still approved of its existence.
At the very least, we should expect detailed reports out of these investigations that detail exactly how and why our privacy is being trampled. Despite the fact that any reports likely wouldn’t be out for over a year, these reports could become valuable evidence as Congress considers future legislation, especially provisions like Section 702 that regularly come up for amendment and reauthorization.