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The House is set to vote Thursday on a reauthorization of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments, which would give the government additional rights to surveil Americans' electronic communications. (Photo: @RepZoeLofgren/Twitter)

Privacy Advocates Urge House to Vote Against Unconstitutional Warrantless Spying Renewal

Reauthorization of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments would allow the NSA to monitor American citizens who are simply mentioned in communications the agency has collected

Julia Conley

Civil liberties advocates called on the House of Representatives to vote against reauthorizing the U.S. government to spy on citizens without a warrant, as lawmakers headed toward a vote on re-upping Section 702 of the FISA Amendments on Thursday.

"The House should soundly reject this bill, unless it is amended to provide real protections for Americans' privacy," said Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice in a statement.

"By codifying a warrantless surveillance program into law, and giving the U.S. government access to millions of Americans' private emails, text messages and phone calls, S. 139 further jeopardizes the privacy rights for those communities."—Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mich.)

The law is scheduled to expire in April, and privacy rights groups argue it's allowed the NSA to monitor communications by Americans without obtaining a warrant, though its officially stated purpose is to target non-citizens living abroad.

Thursday's vote on the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act (S. 139) would renew the law for six years and would grant the government the additional right to complete "about" collections—the surveillance of any citizen who is mentioned in a communication that the NSA has collected. The agency would only need a warrant to begin such monitoring if the person was thought to be involved in criminal activity not related to national security.

"These protections must include a warrant requirement any time the government seeks to read Americans' e-mails or listen to their phone calls, as well as an end to so-called 'about' collection that sweeps in tens of thousands of wholly domestic communications," said Goitein.

Several lawmakers have joined critics in speaking out against the new understanding of Section 702.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mich.) also expressed deep concerns on Wednesday regarding the impact mass domestic surveillance would have on minority communities.

"In the last several years, we've seen Americans' civil rights and civil liberties rolled back, and religious minorities, immigrants and communities of color targeted most acutely," Ellison said in a statement. "By codifying a warrantless surveillance program into law, and giving the U.S. government access to millions of Americans' private emails, text messages and phone calls, S. 139 further jeopardizes the privacy rights for those communities."

President Donald Trump posted an early-morning tweet slamming the legislation, arguing that it was used to investigate former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's communications with Russia.

After the president posted a follow-up tweet saying that the U.S. needs "foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land," Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept surmised that officials had informed him that his administration backs Section 702's reauthorization.

A bipartisan group of legislators including Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.) along with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held a press conference on Wednesday introducing the USA RIGHTS Act Amendment, which would require the NSA to obtain a warrant before surveilling Americans' communications and would prohibit "about" collections.

"The American people deserve better from their own government than to have their Internet activity swept up in warrantless, unlimited searches that ignore the Fourth Amendment," said Paul.

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