Sen. Ron Wyden

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks to reporters in the Senate Subway of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 2022.

(Photo: Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Wyden Says Spying Bill Would Force Americans to Become an 'Agent for Big Brother'

"If you have access to any communications, the government can force you to help it spy," said Sen. Ron Wyden.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden took to the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday to speak out against a chilling mass surveillance bill that lawmakers are working to rush through the upper chamber and send to President Joe Biden's desk by the end of the week.

The measure in question would reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for two years and massively expand the federal government's warrantless surveillance power by requiring a wide range of businesses and individuals to cooperate with spying efforts.

"If you have access to any communications, the government can force you to help it spy," said Wyden (Ore.), referring to an amendment that was tacked on to the legislation by the U.S. House last week with bipartisan support. "That means anyone with access to a server, a wire, a cable box, a Wi-Fi router, a phone, or a computer. So think for a moment about the millions of Americans who work in buildings and offices in which communications are stored or pass through."

"After all, every office building in America has data cables running through it," the senator continued. "The people are not just the engineers who install, maintain, and repair our communications infrastructure; there are countless others who could be forced to help the government spy, including those who clean offices and guard buildings. If this provision is enacted, the government can deputize any of these people against their will, and force them in effect to become what amounts to an agent for Big Brother—for example, by forcing an employee to insert a USB thumb drive into a server at an office they clean or guard at night."

Wyden said the process "can all happen without any oversight whatsoever: The FISA Court won't know about it, Congress won't know about it. Americans who are handed these directives will be forbidden from talking about it. Unless they can afford high-priced lawyers with security clearances who know their way around the FISA Court, they will have no recourse at all."

Wyden's remarks came after the Senate narrowly approved a motion Tuesday to proceed to the FISA reauthorization bill ahead of Section 702's expiration at the end of the week. The Oregon senator, an outspoken privacy advocate, was among the seven members of the Democratic caucus who voted against the procedural motion.

Despite its grave implications for civil liberties, the bill has drawn relatively little vocal opposition in the Senate. A final vote could come as soon as Thursday.

Titled Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act (RISAA), the legislation passed the Republican-controlled House last week after lawmakers voted down an amendment that would have added a search warrant requirement to Section 702.

The authority allows U.S. agencies to spy on non-citizens located outside of the country, but it has been abused extensively by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency to collect the communications of American lawmakers, activists, journalists, and others without a warrant.

Privacy advocates warn RISAA would dramatically expand the scope of Section 702 by broadening the kinds of individuals and businesses required to participate in government spying. A key provision of the bill would mandate cooperation from "electronic communications service providers" such as Google, Verizon, and AT&T as well as "any other service provider who has access to equipment that is being or may be used" to transmit or store electronic communications.

That would mean U.S. intelligence agencies could, without a warrant, compel gyms, grocery stores, barber shops, and other businesses to hand over communications data.

"In the face of the pervasive past misuse of Section 702, the last thing Americans need is a large expansion of government surveillance," Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian on Tuesday. "The Senate should reject the House bill and refuse to reauthorize Section 702 without a warrant requirement. Lawmakers must demand reforms to put a stop to unjustified government spying on Americans."

Wyden said during his floor speech Tuesday that some of his colleagues "say they aren't worried about President Biden abusing these authorities."

"In that case, how about [former President Donald] Trump? Imagine these authorities in his hands," said Wyden. "If you're worried about having a president who lives to target vulnerable Americans, to pit Americans against each other, to find every conceivable way to punish perceived enemies, you ought to find this bill terrifying."

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