Senate Passes USA Freedom Reauthorization Act Without Restricting Warrantless Web Data Collection
The Senate has voted to restore broad government surveillance powers instilled by the Patriot Act, post-9/11 legislation written to help law enforcement detect and prevent terrorism. The USA Freedom Reauthorization Act reauthorizes expired programs from Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the section previously used to support large-scale collection of American phone records. Though the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act was amended to allow expert testimony for judges overseeing FISA requests, bitter controversy remains surrounding the bill’s implications for the internet privacy of individual users.
Though the now-amended act must return to the House of Representatives for a second vote, if passed, the legislation will grant law enforcement the power to demand private search and browsing histories from ISPs — without probable cause. Senators Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and Steve Daines (R) of Montana proposed an amendment that would have prohibited warrantless searches of web data, as called for by the ACLU and other internet privacy activists.
In a recently published Washington Post op-ed, Senators Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) and Mike Lee (R, Utah), the congressmen who introduced the only successful amendment to the act, explain the broad government powers established by the FISA programs up for debate in this bill:
“One of them, Section 215, allows the government to obtain the information we give to businesses — from Google searches to genetic profiles from 23andMe to our Amazon purchase histories — with no need for a probable-cause warrant. To see your information, the government needs merely to claim it is ‘relevant’ to a national security investigation. Section 215 also allows the government to conduct FISA surveillance on a great deal of First Amendment-protected activity, which places journalists, religious and ethnic minorities, political groups and others under threat.”
Despite these concerns, the amendment that would have forbidden these sweeping surveillance measures failed to pass the Senate by a single vote on Wednesday. Though a bipartisan majority of senators did vote “yes,” Senate rules required a 60-vote supermajority in order to keep the amendment alive. Several senators who were expected to support the legislation did not attend the session for reasons that have not yet been fully understood. Vox reports, “In the end, the result didn’t come down to party — there were plenty of Republican and Democratic votes on both sides — but attendance.” You can click here to read the roll call for the amendment.
For many, the ruling raises serious questions about the rights of internet users, especially during a period when reliance on internet usage is at an all-time high. Wyden alluded to this reality during his fervent remarks on the Senate floor, asking, “Is it right, when millions of law-abiding Americans are at home, for their government to be able to spy on their internet searches and their web browsing without a warrant?” He later concluded, “We are more vulnerable to abusive surveillance than ever before.”
Is it right, when millions of law-abiding Americans are at home, for their government to be able to spy on their internet searches and their web browsing without a warrant? . . . We are more vulnerable to abusive surveillance than ever before.