US surveillance: Keeping an eye on terror plots

That key national security surveillance measures were allowed to lapse last week before the US Senate agreed on a new law to replace them is a reflection of the problematic tussle between the country's security hawks and civil libertarians.

Security hawks were holding out till the last moment for a reauthorisation of these measures - which were part of the Patriot Act but lapsed on May 31 - instead of endorsing the new USA Freedom Act that they said would "take away one more tool from those who defend our country". This new law leaves much of the surveillance apparatus of US intelligence agencies intact even as it stops the indiscriminate collection of the telephone data of millions of Americans. It moves this function to private telcos and places checks on how the government can use the data collected. It also affords some transparency by requiring the declassification of "significant" decisions by a secret federal court that deals with foreign intelligence surveillance.

Civil libertarians, however, thought the reforms insufficient to protect Americans' privacy and civil liberty rights and rejected the Bill, although it is seen by some as a Goldilocks answer to the security-liberty conundrum. In the end, both sides saw sense, and the Senate passed the Bill on June 2, but not before dire warnings of national security lapses in the face of terrorist threats.

In the face of a rising threat from those who would inflict harm on society, whether lone wolves or part of a wider organisation, who can strike anywhere at any time with little warning, countries have moved to grant intelligence agencies the tools they need to keep citizens safe. They have begun to arm themselves with broader surveillance powers. In France, support for a new law that gives the state sweeping powers to spy on its citizens grew after the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket attacks in January that left 17 dead, and lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the law last month. In Australia, amid fears of radicalised militants returning from the Middle East and following a siege in a Sydney cafe last December by a lone extremist that left two dead, new anti-terror laws have been proposed that will impinge on some civil freedoms. These include restricting Australians from leaving the country or returning and storage of data from private communications of individuals.

As these anti-terror laws being put in place show, fighting extremism and keeping people safe does mean giving up some personal freedoms. While rightly doing their part to safeguard civil liberties, advocates must accept that religious fundamentalists plotting violent attacks have no interest in the liberties they fight for, except to abuse them to further their own evil agendas.