A Senate bill that passed out of committee this week includes language that would allow the FBI to get access to people’s emails without a court order.
The provision would enable law enforcement to use National Security Letters to demand targets’ email records, a process that currently requires the use of a court order. NSLs are issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, out of the public eye. The change would be a major one, as it would give the FBI much easier access to people’s email records. NSLs are used by the bureau now in other ways, usually in terror investigations and typically to get access to phone records.
Critics of the provision, which is in a bill that was approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on May 24, say that the language would greatly expand the FBI’s authority without providing any additional protections for citizens.
“This bill takes a hatchet to important protections for Americans’ liberty,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said after the intelligence committee vote. “This bill would mean more government surveillance of Americans, less due process and less independent oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies. Worse, neither the intelligence agencies, nor the bill’s sponsors have shown any evidence that these changes would do anything to make Americans more secure. I plan to work with colleagues in both chambers to reverse these dangerous provisions.”
National Security Letters are highly controversial tools for gathering information on suspects in criminal and terror investigations. They have been used for years to demand telephone metadata and other sensitive records, but the FBI currently is not allowed to use them to get email or Internet history records for a target. The court that issues NSLs rarely, if ever, refuses a request from the government for such orders. The letters themselves are extremely powerful, and they typically include a provision that prevents the target from even disclosing receipt of the letter.
The bill in which the controversial language is included is the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act, the measure that would approve the budget and powers for intelligence agencies. The bill has passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate intelligence committee and is now in the Senate proper.