BU Professor Says Data Surveillance Laws Are Outdated

Sharon Goldberg speaks at a “Research on Tap” event at Boston University on Nov. 9, 2017. She presented her research on internet traffic and government surveillance laws at the event. Photo by Christine Lytwynec / BU News Service

By Christine Lytwynec
BU News Service

Boston University professor Sharon Goldberg studies how data travels around the internet. Goldberg said that the protective measures of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), intended to prevent warrantless surveillance on Americans, are outdated.

In a recent paper, “Surveillance without Borders: The ‘Traffic Shaping’ Loophole and Why It Matters,” she discussed how the laws that regulate government surveillance are outdated in ways that put Americans’ privacy at risk.

FISA regulates the ways the government is allowed to collect information on foreign entities. When it was written in the 1978, it specified that the government was not allowed to conduct surveillance on U.S. land without a warrant. In 2008, Congress amended Section 702 to FISA, which allowed the government to collect data within the U.S. without a warrant if collecting foreign intelligence.

According to Goldberg, “there is a distinction between collection in the U.S. and collection abroad in the law, but from a technological perspective, U.S. persons’ traffic can just as easily flow abroad.” In other words, the infrastructure of the internet made the legal distinction between the locations of data collection functionally arbitrary.

Goldberg said that not only does data naturally flow across borders, but it is technically possible to reroute internet traffic in ways that appear to be legal. She emphasized that she does not know of any evidence that this technology is being used for surveillance. Still, she is concerned that the surveillance laws are written in ways that do not protect against “traffic shaping” methods.

Section 702 is set to expire in December. Congress will have to decide to renew the law as it stands, reform and extend the law, or just let it expire. Goldberg said she hopes for reform, but that other laws need to be reevaluated, too.

“As a computer scientist, that is very troubling to me because most of the surveillance reform efforts have focused on the collection of data within the U.S. and it sort of ignores the collection abroad,” Goldberg said.

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