Protecting our freedom and our security: Hatch’s CLOUD Act is all silver lining

Two things have really bugged me in the last 15 years: one is the persistent, cliched use of the “freedom versus security!” debate in pop culture – and the other is the free pass on that issue given to the Obama Administration.

In The Dark Knight, Batman has this technology whereby he can spy on everyone’s cell phone to find the Joker before he attacks his next target – and someone cries out, “That’s too much power!” In Spectre, the military can protect the world with a new security plan – but it’s sinister. In Mission Impossible 5, the military can protect the world with a new security plan – but it’s sinister. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, the military can protect the world … well, you get the idea. They even did the same thing in Jurassic World but with dinosaurs … somehow?

In Star Trek Into Darkness, the villain of the piece is an American military allegory who creates weapons that are too dangerous. There was even a preachy-by-Star Trek-standards fan film about this issue, where they go so far as to quote the Benjamin Franklin line, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Notwithstanding the fact that when Master Franklin wrote these words, in context, he meant the exact opposite thing, constructing a narrative around this false dichotomy has always just struck me as lazy writing. And the sentiment itself fairly stupid: does everyone who lets TSA X-ray their baggage at airport security not deserve a safe flight?

Regarding my second point, it’s always particularly annoyed me – given Hollywood’s transparent albeit superficial politics – that moviemakers love talking about this issue, but gave President Obama a total pass on it.

See, despite the fact that Obama promised to have the “most transparent Administration” of all time ever, he had quite the opposite. White House officials met with lobbyists across the street, so there would be no record of the meeting. He set a record for denying Freedom of Information Act requests. One journalist even alleges that he got audited because he asked Obama a tough question!

Undergirding this is the fact that critics of Bush’s intelligence efforts suddenly went silent once the Obama Administration started doing it.

One particularly egregious example of the Obama Administration shoving aside liberties in the name of safety happened in Ireland a few years ago when, as part of a 2013 drug investigation, federal authorities demanded a warrant to read the emails stored at a Microsoft facility in Dublin. Microsoft said no since it was foreign soil, so the Department of Justice responded with an obstreperous legal attack on the company.

Later this month, the case is set for the Supreme Court, which will get to decide if the DOJ has the right to execute a digital search on foreign soil.

It’s foregone conclusion that the US government can’t conduct physical searches in another country without the approval of those countries as spelled out by Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT). But the Obama DOJ was operating under the Electronic Privacy Communications Act (EPCA) – a 31-year-old law from an era ill-suited to guide law enforcement through the exigencies of modern technology. The DOJ’s case undermines trust in on online services, international rule of law, and ultimately safety.

If we don’t respect another country’s sovereignty, there’s no reason for them to respect ours, and then we could see a breakdown of these treaties – designed to help law enforcement cooperate –allowing bad actors to slip through the cracks.

But there is a perfect solution to all this.

This week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act, which seeks to balance the needs of Internet users, law enforcement, and international law.

Hatch said:

“This state of affairs causes problems both for law enforcement and for email and cloud computing providers. It causes problems for law enforcement because warrants traditionally stop at the water’s edge and because laws in other countries may prohibit disclosure to foreign law enforcement. And it causes problems for email and cloud computing providers because they find themselves caught between orders by U.S. law enforcement to disclose data in other countries and laws in those other countries that may forbid such disclosure.”

The Trump Administration has nodded support for this compromise legislation; it’s expected if the CLOUD Act passes that the DoJ will withdraw from the Microsoft Ireland case. The idea that liberty and safety are at odds is, again, a false dichotomy. With smart policies, we can have both.

Let’s see Hollywood make a movie about that though …