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Senate Narrowly Rejected Bill To Expand Government Surveillance

While consumers may have been distracted with votes in the U.S. Senate about gun reform or the sit-in within the U.S. House, a key vote also happened last week regarding government surveillance. The U.S. Senate narrowly voted down a bill to grant expanded surveillance powers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to Reuters, the legislation sought to:

"... broaden the type of telephone and internet records the FBI could request from companies such as the Google unit of Alphabet Inc and Verizon Communications Inc without a warrant... filed as an amendment to a criminal justice funding bill, would widen the FBI’s authority to use so-called National Security Letters, which do not require a warrant and whose very existence is usually a secret. Such letters can compel a company to hand over a user's phone billing records. Under the Senate's change, the FBI would be able to demand electronic communications transaction records such as time stamps of emails and the emails' senders and recipients, in addition to some information about websites a person visits and social media log-in data. It would not enable the FBI to use national security letters to obtain the actual content of electronic communications."

Perhaps, more importantly the bill would have made:

"... permanent a provision of the USA Patriot Act that lets the intelligence community conduct surveillance on “lone wolf” suspects who do not have confirmed ties to a foreign terrorist group. That provision, which the Justice Department said last year had never been used, expires in December 2019."

Senate Amendment 4787 was introduced by Senators John McCain and Richard Burr. It failed by two votes: 58-38. Before the vote on Wednesday, Senator Ron Wyden (Dem.-Oregon) had warned:

"If this proposal passes, FBI agents will be able to demand the records of what websites you look at online, who you email and chat with, and your text message logs, with no judicial oversight whatsoever. The reality is the FBI already has the power to demand these electronic records with a court order under the Patriot Act. In emergencies the FBI can even obtain the records right away and go to a judge after the fact. This isn’t about giving law-enforcement new tools, it’s about the FBI not wanting to do paperwork.”

Yep. That rejected bill sounds like an erosion of privacy rights. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Rep.-Kentucky) has already filed a motion to reconsider the amendment.

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