US Internet Surveillance debate heats up

Internet Surveillance

The debate over the renewal of the USA’s flagship online spying legislation is beginning to gather momentum with former directors of the USA’s main spy agencies urging Congress to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Meanwhile, at the same time, the Senate Intelligence Committee has voted to renew the power, while a bipartisan group of senators have put forward new legislation which would require warrants to be issued instead of the warrantless system currently being used.

Vested interests pulling out all the stops

It will come as little surprise that those with a long history of working within the US intelligence community are keen for Section 702 to be renewed as it is. As regular readers may recall from previous articles on this subject, Section 702 is a powerful law which allows them to listen in and collect online communications data from any foreign suspect located outside the USA.

This basically gives US intelligence carte blanche to snoop into the online activities of just about anybody on the planet who they take an interest. There is no warrant required for this surveillance to take place and the oversight which is in place is woefully inadequate.

Such a broad programme means that inevitably they also end up harvesting some data on US citizens as well. Under current laws, this can be accessed by the FBI and once again there is no warrant needed and minimal oversight in place.

For the intelligence community, what this basically means is that no intelligence is needed. They simply pop a few keywords into a database and have access to whatever online communications they need. Small wonder they are keen to keep hold of such a power. They have a vested interest in retaining it.

In a letter to congressional leaders in Washington, which was leaked to the Reuters news agency, former directors of U.S. national intelligence, the CIA and the National Security Agency said, “We have personally reported to our Presidents – Republican and Democratic – and to the Congress details of plots disrupted based on information from Section 702… We strongly urge the Congress to reauthorize the program and continue allowing the intelligence community to protect our country.”

Senate Committee approves secret bill renewing Section 702

Despite their evident biased viewpoint, they yesterday moved a step closer to getting their wish as the Senate Intelligence Committee voted on whether or not the powers included in Section 702 should be retained. By a margin of 12 votes to 3, they approved draft legislation which would renew the power until December 31st, 2025.

In the spirit of transparency, both the vote and the text of the draft legislation was kept private meaning that as of yet, no-one outside of the Committee knows what exactly they voted in favour of. But this is common practice with the Intelligence Committee.

The only hint of the contents of the bill came in a joint statement from Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the panel’s Republican and Democratic leaders. They insisted that their bill would protect US National Security interests and improve privacy protections for US citizens.

Without the requirement for warrants being added to the legislation, it is hard to see how this could be achieved, but no doubt information will come to light on exactly what they are planning soon.

Rival Bill a cause for limited optimism

One of the three Democrats on the Committee which voted against the proposal was Senator Ron Wyden. As we reported earlier this month he is one of the authors of a  separate piece of legislation that would explicitly require the NSA to obtain warrants for any data relating to US citizens.

Along with Republican Senator Rand Paul, their draft legislation has been titled the ‘USA Rights Act’ and has been backed by more than 40 separate campaign groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and FreedomWorks.

As well as the introduction of warrants, this bill would only renew the powers of Section 702 for a period of 4 years after which it could be looked at again.

For many campaigners, even four more years is too much for such sweeping and intrusive powers. But it is better than the eight-year renewal being muted elsewhere. Nonetheless, the message from all sides of the debate is clear. Wherever you are in the world, when you are online, without encrypted protection from a VPN, US spies will still be watching you!

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