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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) answers questions on the recently released Republican plan to reform taxes on September 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) answers questions on the Republican plan to reform taxes on September 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Rights Groups Demand House Democrats Fix Bill That Gives FBI Power to Search Browser Histories Without Warrant

"Collecting this information is as close to reading minds as surveillance can get. It is digital mining of the personal lives of Americans."

Andrea Germanos

Over 50 anti-surveillance groups put pressure on the Democrat-controlled House "to seize this moment in defense of Americans' civil liberties" in a new letter urging the chamber to pass the Senate-cleared USA Freedom Reauthorization Act only if it includes a key privacy protecting amendment.

The letter (pdf), sent to House leadership Monday, calls the amendment put forth by Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—which would bar spy agencies from warrantless surveiling of Americans' web browsing and internet search histories—"sorely needed."

Signed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, the letter states, in part:

This reform is precisely designed to stave off the kind of scandals that led to a dramatic loss of trust in United States intelligence agencies over the past two decades.

Indeed, this would help address serious concerns among the public that civil liberties are at a heightened risk during this time of crisis. This is an acute concern for the many groups that the FBI has wrongfully targeted in the past, including activists, communities of color, and the press.

With ample support for this measure secured in the Senate, the decision to seize this moment in defense of Americans' civil liberties is exclusively in your hands

The letter comes just days after the Senate's Thursday vote to reauthorize sweeping government surveillance powers until December 2023 and after the upper chamber's Wednesday vote in which the Wyden-Daines amendment failed by just one vote. While 10 members of the Democratic caucus voted with Republicans against the amendment, two others—Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—did not attend the vote.

Wyden, speaking on the Senate floor last week ahead of the vote, outlined why he believed the provision was crucial.

"Every thought that can come into people's heads can be revealed in an internet search or a visit to a website," said Wyden. "Their health history and medical concerns. Their political views. Their romantic lives and friendships. Their religious beliefs."

"Collecting this information is as close to reading minds as surveillance can get. It is digital mining of the personal lives of Americans," he said.

"The warrantless collection of Americans' web browsing history offers endless opportunities for abuse," Wyden added, suggesting that threat was imminent with the current administration.

"Donald Trump has called for investigations of his political enemies. Attorney General [William] Barr has injected himself into investigations that affect the personal or political interests of Donald Trump. All it would take is for some innocent American's web browsing history to be deemed relevant to one of those investigations, and the government could start collecting it," he said.

Wyden's warning was echoed in a Saturday day op-ed from Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, one of  the signatories to the new letter.

"Our web browsing and search histories contain the most intimate personal information," he wrote. "Any administration—let alone the draconian Trump justice department—should be required to comply with the Fourth Amendment before trawling through it."

In light of that threat, the so-called Democratic "Resistance" needs to get behind the amendment, said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight For The Future.

"House Democrats literally impeached Trump and have spent the last two years shouting about how this dangerous administration routinely abuses power. Now they have a chance to put even just a tiny limitation on Trump's surveillance authorities," she told Motherboard.

"If they don't take it, they're making it clear The Resistance has always been bullshit," Greer said.

Greer, in a video from MTV News, encouraged people to heap pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to help ensure the amendment's inclusion.

"She has the power to put this amendment back into place," said Greer.

According to Timm, "the fight is not over. Especially if representatives hear loud and clear how much this issue means to Americans."


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