The U.S. National Security Agency claims that the broad surveillance powers it has assumed are necessary to protect Americans against terrorist attacks. But some Tennessee lawmakers are backing legislation to prevent state-run service providers and facilities from in any way aiding in warrantless data-collection by the federal government.
The Tennessee Fourth Amendment Protection Act (HB0679/SB0782) — sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and Republican Jonesborough Reps. Micah van Huss and Matthew Hill — would prevent the state or any of its subdivisions from assisting or otherwise providing “material support or resources to enable or facilitate” the gathering of an individual’s data by the NSA without a judge’s approval.
The legislation was conceived by a privacy rights advocacy group called the Off Now Coalition, whose aim is to “shut down the surveillance state.” It is designed to help protect against the NSA’s domestic data-collection program revealed in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Tennessee legislation represents part of a broader national strategy by activists to gain regional leverage against the NSA where political efforts in Washington, D.C. have largely come up short.
The proposed legislation in the Tennessee statehouse doesn’t include a definition for “material support.” However, OffNow.org argues that because “the spy agency needs resources like water and electricity” and “cannot operate its facilities without these essential resources,” state or municipally owned utilities fall into the category. Partnerships between NSA and state higher education institutions would be blocked, as would use of federal warrantless data by state agencies.
The NSA is using the facility to produce a supercomputer capable of sifting “through enormous quantities of data – for example, all the phone numbers dialed in the United States every day,” according to James Bamford, an investigative journalist who covers national security and intelligence-gathering issues.
If passed, Tennessee’s Fourth Amendment Protection Act would also prevent law enforcement here from using any NSA-collected data in court.
Fourth Amendment Protection Acts have been introduced in 13 states. None have yet won approval.
A more narrowly written Electronic Data Privacy Act has become law in Utah and New Hampshire. The American Civil Liberties Union lauded Utah’s passage of the legislation last year.
A somewhat similarly worded Fourth Amendment Protection Act was also filed in Tennessee last session, sponsored by state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden and former Knoxville Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield. However, it died in committees.
The aim of the 2014 legislation was to resist the NSA in its attempts to collect private, personal communications between Americans, Holt said. “It is disturbing to me to think that every conversation, whether that is a telephone call, a text message or an email, may potentially…be used against me at some point by the federal government, and I am not comfortable about that,” Holt said during a hearing on the measure last spring.
Even though the legislation failed in 2014, U.S. government spying on Americans appears to be a matter of concern that crosses party lines in the Legislature.
“The NSA’s attempt to collect data on American citizens is just a complete outrage,” Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville attorney and now chairman of the House minority-party caucus, said last year. “There is no reason in this country ever for people to be collecting information that is private without a warrant.”