WASHINGTON (CN) – The House Intelligence Committee on Friday approved legislation that would renew the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, despite objections from Democrats and civil liberties groups over inadequate privacy protection.
The text of the bill, which was sponsored by committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, was released less than 48 hours before the committee vote Friday.
The committee voted 13-8 to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for a further four years until 2021. The act is due to expire on Dec. 31 in the absence of congressional action.
All Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the measure, while all Democrats opposed it on a variety of grounds including revised language in the law that would allow the government to reveal the identities of Americans captured in intelligence intercepts. Those names are currently redacted in federal documents.
Section 702 was adopted in 2008 and renewed in 2012. It grants intelligence agencies the ability to collect “significant foreign intelligence that is vital to protect the nation against international terrorism and other threats.”
Intelligence agencies say Section 702 is vital to national security, and the Trump administration wants minimal changes to it.
But privacy advocates criticized the intelligence panel’s bill for not requiring a warrant to access collected data belonging to Americans.
Under the new bill, statutory terms like “foreign power” and “agent of a foreign power” in Section 702 will be expanded to include cyber-related activities deemed a threat to national security. For instance, an individual who attempts to weaken the “confidentiality, integrity or availability of computers” would be open to NSA surveillance.
But according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that surveillance can be approved for individuals not actually acting on behalf of a foreign power.
“Instead, those individuals must simply either knowingly aid or abet another person who is performing ‘international malicious cyber activity,” the foundation said in a statement.
Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the ACLU issued a statement Friday condemning the decision of the Intelligence Committee.
“Claims that this bill constitutes reform are simply false,” she said. “This legislation would dramatically expand NSA surveillance authorities, make current law measurably worse and open up new avenues for the government to violate Americans’ constitutional rights. Given this, it is no surprise that the ACLU, over 35 organizations across the political spectrum, and companies oppose this bill.”
Last month, the House Judiciary Committee passed another measure by a 27-8 vote that partially restricts the FBI’s ability to review American data collected under Section 702 by requiring the agency to obtain a warrant when seeking evidence of crime, but not in other cases such as for data related to counterterrorism.
Guliani said other Section 702 reform bills have been proposed on Capitol Hill and all would have been better than Nunes’s bill.
One alternative, the USA Rights Act, introduced by Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., closed the backdoor search loophole and assigned oversight power to an independent agency.
Perhaps most controversially, Nunes’s bill would once again allow the NSA to conduct “about” searches.
After Section 702 went into effect, the government used the law to collect information that was not to or from a targeted individual, but merely “about” the target. This April, the agency halted “about” data collection after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the practice violated the privacy rights of American citizens..
“Instead of prohibiting this collection, the bill would be used by the government to restart it with the approval of the FISA court, an authority the government already claims,” Nov. 30 letter to the Intelligence Committee. ” Once intentional ‘about’ collection is reapproved by the court, the bill would impose a one month time period in which Congress could pass a law preventing it from restarting — a time period so short that it would virtually ensure Congress’ approval through inaction.”
As far as Guliani is concerned, “Congress should abandon this flawed and unconstitutional intelligence bill and instead take up those measures that bring forward real reform.”
In a statement, Nunes acknowledged the ongoing controversy surrounding Section 702.
“It’s a constant challenge to strike the right balance between security and privacy — this balance must be regularly re-evaluated in response to technological innovations and the evolution of threats to U.S. forces and Americans at home and abroad,” Nunes said. “This bill updates the rules on Section 702 and other collection by strengthening privacy protections and transparency without hindering the ability of our intelligence professionals to monitor terror suspects, analyze collected data, and keep us safe.”