New Surveillance Bill Has Privacy Advocates Confused

Electronic Surveillance
"Wow, get a load of this guy's search history...eww"

Today, the House is set to vote on the renewal of a controversial surveillance bill that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence units to collect foreign intelligence on U.S. soil. The intelligence community stresses the importance of the bill in locating and disrupting terrorist activities.

The Chamber has plans to vote on a reformed measure from the House Intelligence Committee that enforce new privacy measures on the contentious warrantless surveillance program by the National Security Agency (NSA).

The controversial surveillance bill went through the committee along with the party lines, but Chairman Devin Nunes (R- Calif.) removes the bill provision that leads to major democratic opposition to the bill in the committee. The bill will renew the NSA’s power to collect all types of communication, including emails of overseas targets from the U.S.

It confines the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) ability to seek information from the database that holds information about U.S. nationals, who may or may not be in contact with hostile overseas targets.

This particular section of the bill seeks to place further limitations on government representatives interested in identifying the names of U.S. nationals held-up in foreign surveillance. Initial backing for the bill was divided along the party lines.

The Republicans wanted to include a provision that altered the method, which the intelligence community enforces to identify Americans on surveillance reports, from foreign countries.

The bill directly points at a political hot button known as “unmasking”. The House has a plan to vote, on Thursday, to exclude this particular provision.

The altered House legislation removes another debatable provision from the bill – to redefine the terms “external powers” and “representatives of foreign power”, allowing to expand scenarios where communication conducted “about” Americans are considered, but any information collection directly to and from an American is strictly forbidden.

This leaves a gap for a second provision, allowing the government to initiate a procedure to restart information collection ‘about’ Americans, once the Congress is notified. In this case, if the Congress is unable to prevent information gathering within the allocated 30-day time period, this provision is likely to dismay advocates of privacy.

The Bill would require the FBI to get official court orders before reviewing any content of the queries the agency makes in criminal cases for information about Americans. The restrictions exclude national security cases but apply to criminal cases.

A Congressional aide warned on Tuesday night, “The Judiciary Committee will be near-unanimous in its opposition to this bill, making it highly unlikely that it passes on the floor of the House,”

Chairman of the House Intelligence Panel Subcommittee on cyber security and NSA, noted on Tuesday that “members of the Freedom Caucus and other libertarian types . . . have a problem with 702,” he added that ‘I was glad to consider a reauthorization alone’.

The Bill marks a cautiously crafted but very constricted compromise between how FBI wants to do things and what the privacy advocates want. The FBI wants to renew the current law with no additional new limits; on the other hand, privacy advocates want the FBI to have a search warrant for the surveillance database for Americans.

The current Judicial Committee bill requires intelligence committees to have a search warrant to view information about Americans in the covert database but not search for information within the database.