May 18 , 2020
The US Senate has voted to give law enforcement agencies access to web browsing data without a warrant, dramatically expanding the government’s surveillance powers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The power grab was led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell as part of a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which gives federal agencies broad domestic surveillance powers. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) attempted to remove the expanded powers from the bill with a bipartisan amendment.
But in a shock upset, the privacy-preserving amendment fell short by a single vote after several senators who would have voted “Yes” failed to show up to the session, including Bernie Sanders. Nine Democratic senators also voted “No,” causing the amendment to fall short of the 60-vote threshold it needed to pass.
“The Patriot Act should be repealed in its entirety, set on fire and buried in the ground,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “It’s one of the worst laws passed in the last century, and there is zero evidence that the mass surveillance programs it enables have ever saved a single human life.”
The vote comes at a time when internet usage has skyrocketed, with tens of millions of Americans quarantined at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Privacy advocates have warned for over a decade that allowing warrantless access to web search queries and browsing history allows law enforcement to easily crack down on activists, labor organizers, or anyone else the government deems a threat.
“Today the Senate made clear that the purpose of the PATRIOT Act is to spy on Americans, no warrants or due process necessary,” Dayton Young, director of product at Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “Any lawmaker who votes to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act is voting against our constitutionally-protected freedoms, and there’s nothing patriotic about that.”
Introduced in House (03/10/2020)
USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020
This bill reauthorizes through December 1, 2023, provisions related to intelligence gathering under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) and amends FISA-related provisions.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation may not seek certain FISA-authorized orders to obtain (1) call detail records on an ongoing basis, (2) a tangible thing where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a warrant would typically be required, or (3) cellular or GPS location information.
In applications for certain FISA-authorized orders to obtain information or conduct surveillance, the applicant must certify that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has received any information that might raise doubts about the application. The bill imposes additional requirements on FISA-authorized orders targeting a (1) U.S. person, or (2) federal elected official or candidate.
The bill increases criminal penalties for violations related to electronic surveillance conducted under color of law or false statements made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court).
The bill broadens the criteria for when a FISA court decision shall be declassified and requires the declassification review and release of such opinions within 180 days of an opinion being issued.
The bill broadens the FISA court's authority to appoint an amicus curiae (an outside party that assists in consideration of a case) and expands such amici's powers, such as the power to ask the court to review a decision.
Each agency that submits applications to the FISA court shall appoint an officer responsible for compliance with FISA requirements.