Operation: Fax Big Brother

Fax machines are making a comeback this week on Capitol Hill. In an effort to showcase concerns about the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), a broad bipartisan coalition has launched “Operation: Fax Big Brother.” FaxBigBrother.com makes it possible for individuals to express their concerns about CISA to members of the Senate using technology from the 1980s -- imparting the message that Congress needs to modernize its perspective on online security.

The coalition’s fax campaign kicked off a week of action. The next major splash was release of a letter late Monday urging President Obama to threaten to veto the bill. The administration is expected to be amenable since it made such a threat over past versions of CISA – all of which contained even fewer onerous and surveillance-expanding powers for the intelligence community – both in 2012 and 2013. In addition to almost 30 security experts, nearly 70 civil-liberties organizations signed the letter arguing that CISA would not improve cybersecurity.

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One of those organizations is the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), which also issued a press release in which Robyn Greene, OTI’s policy counsel, claimed that a veto threat “is the only option.” She argued that Obama’s “support for the amendment process is not going to get CISA where it needs to be – it’s a train wreck for privacy and security, and Congress simply needs to go back to the drawing board.”

It is possible, however unlikely, that CISA could be improved through a vigorous amendment process. However, that will require a far more robust debate in the Senate, as well as ample time for consideration of possible amendments – something that surely will not occur before the August recess. If nothing else, Congress ought to postpone consideration of CISA until September, when the House and Senate reconvene. That will give lawmakers more time to consider the possible ramifications this bill could have on Americans’ civil liberties, and perhaps give them time to read some of those faxes detailing the full breadth of concerns over the bill. Rushing through a bill just before an extended recess is irresponsible and will likely only exacerbate problems in the near term.

As the week of action continues and faxes flood in to all 100 Senate offices, one hopes it will become clearer to lawmakers that Americans are fed up with legislation that purports to protect their rights while keeping them secure, when in fact it fails on both counts. Mandated information-sharing of sensitive data between private firms and government is not a panacea for cybersecurity ills. As Andrea Castillo points out, system glitches and human error constitute twice the risk for network security  of external attacks. Until more members of Congress realize the folly of legislating security in the online world, which thrives on decentralization, the real issues of cybersecurity will continue to go unaddressed.

In the meantime, pity all the Hill staffers and interns who are going to be flooded with those faxes.

Hagemann is a civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.