House Bill Starts Internet Surveillance Debate, Round 2

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. speaks on Capitol Hill in April.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. speaks on Capitol Hill in April. Alex Brandon/AP

The bill would rein in surveillance authorities but is still opposed by civil liberties groups.

House lawmakers took a first stab, Thursday, at updating the most controversial U.S. government spying program that’s gone un-renewed since leaker Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations about the scope of U.S. digital snooping in 2013.

The plan from bipartisan leaders of the House Judiciary Committee to update Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prohibits law enforcement, in most cases, from using the collected information to support a criminal investigation without a probable cause warrant.

The bill would continue to allow intelligence agencies to query databases for information about U.S. citizens without a warrant provided they don’t turn that information over to law enforcement.

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The bill also requires documentation when an official reveals the identity of a person who’s not the target of an investigation, a process lawmakers call “unmasking,” and prohibits collecting communications that are merely about an intelligence target rather than to or from that target. Lawmakers typically call this “about collection.”

Intelligence agencies halted about collection earlier this year after discovering analysts had misused it to gather information about U.S. citizens.

Unlike Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which Congress revised in 2015, Section 702 involves the collection of actual internet communications rather than metadata—like the sender, recipient and time it was sent—from those communications. Both laws only authorize collection about non-Americans, though U.S. citizens’ information is sometimes incidentally collected.

The House bill would require the Director of National Intelligence to report on the number of U.S. citizens whose information is incidentally collected. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has long sought such a report. Intelligence officials have said they can’t produce it without further invading those Americans’ privacy.

Section 702 is set to expire at the end of this year if it’s not renewed. The House Judiciary bill would extend the revised authority for six years.

The 702 reform bill is dubbed the USA Liberty Act, an echo of the 215 reform bill known as the USA Freedom Act.

Lawmakers stressed during a press conference Thursday that their proposal is a starting point rather than an ending point.

The committee’s ranking member Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., called the bill a “working document” and warned that “the final product may not contain everything that I’d like to see in terms of privacy protections.”

Conyers drafted the bill with Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

“We believe it is possible to preserve the effectiveness of this authority even as we make changes to bring this authority better in line with our sense of privacy and due process,” Conyers said.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., ranking member on the committee’s internet panel, called the bill a “very, very good start.”

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a generally moderate internet freedom group, criticized the bill for allowing intelligence agencies to query 702 databases for information about U.S. citizens.

The American Civil Liberties Union and 57 other groups similarly asked the Judiciary Committee to close the “backdoor search loophole.”

A Senate counterpart to the 702 bill is expected shortly.

A competing Senate bill, sponsored by Republicans led by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., would renew the 702 authority unchanged and make it permanent. That bill is unlikely to gain enough votes for passage.