Senate Rejects "Hatchet to Americans' Privacy"--But Threat Remains

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may call for second vote on a bill that would increase FBI's warrantless surveillance powers. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

Senate Rejects "Hatchet to Americans' Privacy"--But Threat Remains

Civil liberties groups are urging lawmakers to "abandon this misguided effort" to address national security concerns in the wake of the Orlando shooting

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday failed to pass a bill that would have dramatically expanded the FBI's warrantless surveillance powers, but the fight is not over as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may call for a second vote on the proposed legislation.

According to the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), McConnell "switched his vote to 'No' at the last minute so that he may be able to bring up the amendment during future debate."

Civil liberties groups are mobilizing against the bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), with the ACLU issuing a statement to lawmakers urging them to "abandon this misguided effort" to address national security concerns in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

As Common Dreams reported on Tuesday, the measure, attached to a criminal justice appropriations bill, would expand the FBI's authority to use the so-called National Security Letters (NSL) to obtain Electronic Communication Transaction Records (ECTR) such as email time stamps, senders, and recipients, as well as browsing metadata such as history and location--all without a warrant.

Senators who supported the bill said it was necessary to expand law enforcement powers as a counterterrorism tool. But opponents, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned that doing so "takes a hatchet to important protections for Americans' liberty."

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Ahead of Wednesday's vote, a coalition of civil liberties organizations including the EFF and the ACLU--as well as groups such as Amnesty International, Fight for the Future, and Human Rights Watch--issued an open letter to lawmakers that read in part:

The new categories of information that could be collected using an NSL--and thus without any oversight from a judge--would paint an incredibly intimate picture of an individual's life. For example, ECTRs could include a person's browsing history, email metadata, location information, and the exact date and time a person signs in or out of a particular online account. This information could reveal details about a person's political affiliation, medical conditions, religion, substance abuse history, sexual orientation, and, in spite of the exclusion of cell tower information in the Cornyn amendment, even his or her movements throughout the day.

"The civil liberties and human rights concerns associated with such an expansion are compounded by the government's history of abusing NSL authorities," the letter continues. "Given the sensitive nature of the information that could be swept up under the proposed expansion, and the documented past abuses of the underlying NSL statute, we urge the Senate to remove this provision[.]"

The ACLU also noted that the amendment would "make permanent the 'lone wolf' provision, which has reportedly never been used and allows the government to obtain secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders for individuals who are not connected to an international terrorist group or foreign nation."

ACLU national political director Karin Johanson said Wednesday, "The Senate should not respond to the massacre in Orlando by voting to gut Americans' privacy protections and expand provisions of the Patriot Act that have consistently been abused by the government."

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