The effort by the FBI and some legislators to give the bureau more power to access citizens’ web and email records is continuing apace, even though a measure that would grant those powers recently was voted down in Congress.
There are actually two amendments along these lines that are under consideration in Congress at this point. One is attached to the budget bill for intelligence agencies for 2017 and has been at the center of quite a lot of controversy in recent weeks. That measure would give the FBI the ability to access targets’ Electronic Communications Transactional Records (ECTR), which include things such as email and web browsing history. The FBI would be able to use National Security Letters to get that data, and NSLs are issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Last month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) stepped in and placed a hold on the intelligence appropriations act as a way to stop the expansion of the FBI’s powers in this area. Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said he doesn’t see this expansion as a necessary one.
“I do not believe it is appropriate to give the government broad new surveillance authorities just because FBI officials do not like doing paperwork. If the FBI’s own process for requesting court orders is too slow, then the appropriate solution is bureaucratic reforms, not a major expansion of government surveillance authorities,” Wyden said.
The other amendment is part of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, and recently was voted down in committee. However, that amendment is not completely dead and its supporters are trying to revive it in committee. Civil liberties groups and privacy advocates worry that expanding the powers of law enforcement to access citizens’ email and browsing records would be a serious privacy loss.
“Giving the FBI power to obtain these sensitive records with an NSL is especially dangerous, because NSLs operate without prior judicial approval and come with a gag order in nearly all cases. In other words, the FBI would be able to secretly demand this revealing information from Internet companies about their users and gag the companies from notifying policymakers, the press, or users themselves,” Shahid Butter and Andrew Crocker of the EFF said of the proposals.