Amendment to the Surveillance Law
An amendment to the surveillance law is being sought by the Obama administration so that the FBI is vested with the authority to access internet browsing history of a person without a warrant in cases involving espionage and terrorism, according to reports.
Six years ago, the Obama administration had made a similar attempt.
However, the idea was dropped after people from the tech industry and privacy advocates raised concerns.
However, privacy advocates and tech firms are of the view that the surveillance power expansion sought by the bureau would be an infringement on the civil liberties protection of the Americans.
The amendment to the surveillance law advancing by some lawmakers would enable the FBI to access records of electronic communications by way of an administrative subpoena referred to as the National Security Letter (NSL).
The special agent who is in charge of a field office of the bureau can issue an NSL without the approval of a judge.
The records of an individual may include his/her internet protocol address and the time spent by the person on a specified site.
Content such as e-mail text and Google search queries would not form part of the content.
Further, the bureau’s visibility regarding the part of the website visited by a person would be limited.
Comey reportedly told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau’s inability to access data through an NSL is seriously impairing their work and that the said amendment to the surveillance law is the top legislative priority for the bureau this year.
Recently, an NSL amendment authorization bill was voted out by the Senate panel.
However, the Senate Judiciary Committee would consider a provision for governing domestic surveillance that is similar to the one introduced by John Cornyn, Senator for Texas, for amending the ECPA surveillance law.
In a letter signed by the Amnesty International USA, American Civil Liberties Union, Association of Computer and Communications Industry, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, among others, and addressed to The Hill, the coalition group has said that the new data collected with the help of an NSL would provide an intimate picture of a person’s life.
The letter also pointed out that the FBI used NSLs to collect illegally information that was not permitted by NSL statutes as revealed by an audit in 2007.
Additionally, a gag order that accompanies the NSL would prevent the company from divulging the receipt of a government request.
The letter also noted that over 300,000 NSLs, mostly with gag orders have been issued by the FBI over the past decade.
However, the USA Freedom Act, a law that was passed last year, stipulates that the Justice Department periodically review gag orders.
Though the tech companies and privacy groups do support a broader update to the ECPA, they are likely to withdraw support if the NSL provision is included in the bill.
Meanwhile, the argument put forward by the Office of the General Counsel representing the FBI is that the telephone billing records and electronic communication transactional records are functionally the same and the FBI wants such data to be explicitly covered by the surveillance law.
However, Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, and Mike Lee of Utah, a member of the committee, oppose the amendment to the surveillance law proposed by Cornyn.
They have said that they would strive for a cleaner ECPA surveillance law update, one that is similar to the bill the House passed earlier this year.
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