Swalwell’s Finger To The Wind Relationship With Privacy Rights

ILLUSTRATION/Steven Tavares PHOTO/Shane Bond

CONGRESS//15th DISTRICT/PRIVACY | Last April, during the first few months of Rep. Eric Swalwell’s first term in Congress, he voted for a bill allowing tech and manufacturing companies to fork over your Internet traffic information. The stated purpose of the bill was meant to stem the increasing prevalence of cyber attacks against government and private companies. Aside from privacy hawks and tweeters on the far sides of the political spectrum, Internet privacy was not yet on the minds of every American. However, some Web sites went black in protest of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Undaunted, Swalwell and 287 other members of Congress voted for the bill, which the U.S. Senate never bothered to tackle. Then Edward Snowden happened.

By May, Snowden’s incriminating government documents showing wide-spread infringement of privacy rights by the government led to a rash of blistering articles in The Guardian, Washington Post and The New York Times. Suddenly, the whispers of the government spying on its citizens with a scope never before proved, made fears of Big Brother-style intrusion a hot-topic issue.

The damning evidence provided by Snowden caught the Obama administration flat-footed as it did for many Beltway officials. Last July, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash proposed an amendment to next year’s defense appropriation bill expressly forbidding the National Security Agency from collecting phone records of Americans as detailed in secret documents provided by Snowden. Amash’s amendment was lauded by progressives and libertarians as a strong response to the government’s breach of privacy, but was voted down in the House. Swalwell, who has crafted an image for himself as a young politician savvy with the protocols and potential of the Internet, supported the Amash amendment and celebrated his stand for privacy rights on social media. However, Swalwell struggles to explain the disconnect between voting for CISPA while also supporting the Amash amendment.

Swalwell last March in Hayward.
PHOTO/Shane Bond

An informed young man in his 20s attending a Swalwell town hall meeting Aug. 20 in Union City zeroed in on the congressman’s flip-flop. How can you explain supporting a bill in February allowing the government to collect Internet browser information and then backing an amendment strongly prohibiting the culling of phone records? Unfortunately, Swalwell never tackled the question with any substance that night. In fact, Swalwell uses an ingenious method to sidestep tough questions like the one posed by the young man. Instead of answering each query one-by-one, Swalwell takes three at time. His answer to the privacy question was creatively stuffed between two less controversial subjects.

Swalwell said the nation is far more vulnerable to cyber attacks on public utilities and financial institutions than a large-scale 9/11-type attack. With nearly 95 percent of computer networks in the hands of private corporations, some unwilling to be forthright about the number of attacks it absorbs, he added, there is only so much the government can do. The comments obviously were meant to defend his vote on CISPA in February, but he never defended the Amash vote, only saying, “I’m troubled about what we learn everyday about the NSA.”

The young congressman’s pro-defense stance on privacy concerns, however, is not surprising. He sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and has shown strong support in the past for military drones, defending Israel and local law enforcement initiatives. His record regarding government intrusion suggest his vote for the Amash amendment amounted to gauging the winds of short-term public sentiment. In contrast, Alameda County’s other member of Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee maintain continuity in her progressive stance by voting against CISPA while supporting the Amash amendment.

The votes also represent a huge opening for opponents to exploit in the next year’s re-election campaign. For a moderate like Swalwell straddling between two distinct voter pools in the Hayward area and the Tri Valley, issues like privacy which has unified both progressives and Tea Party types with vigor, makes for an interesting political battlefield for Swalwell to navigate. State Sen. Ellen Corbett, who is challenging Swalwell next year, would appear to hold an upper hand on the issue. In the past, she has battled online privacy concerns when it comes to protecting minors from the dark side of the Internet and raised the ire of social media giants like Facebook for her advocacy.

As for the young man who tried to pin down Swalwell on his voting record, he was left unsatisfied. Upon realizing his question had been glossed over, he furrowed his brow, pursed his lips and then let out a small sigh of exasperation.