Several powerful technology vendors and civil liberties organizations are fighting legislation that would give the FBI the ability to issue National Security Letters–which don’t require a warrant–to get citizens’ browsing history, email metadata, location data, and other highly sensitive information.
The new powers would be granted by an amendment to the intelligence appropriations bill, which establishes the budgets for United States intelligence agencies. The provision would greatly expand the type of information that the FBI would be able to get using an NSL, a highly controversial instrument that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues. The FBI isn’t required to provide probable cause to obtain an NSL, and that fact, along with the kinds of records the agency would be able to get if the bill passes, has raised concerns in the tech community.
On Monday, a coalition of tech vendors and other organizations, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, the ACLU, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, sent a letter to Congress saying that expanding the FBI’s usage of NSLs would give the agency the ability to track citizens’ movements and other actions in minute detail.
Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned that the provision in the intelligence appropriations bill would be a serious loss for privacy.
“This bill takes a hatchet to important protections for Americans’ liberty,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said after the intelligence committee vote. “This bill would mean more government surveillance of Americans, less due process and less independent oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies. Worse, neither the intelligence agencies, nor the bill’s sponsors have shown any evidence that these changes would do anything to make Americans more secure.”
The bill has passed the Senate intelligence committee and is in the full Senate now. The coalition of companies and organizations that is opposing the expansion of NSL usage cited problems with the FBI’s utilization of NSLs in the past.
“An audit by the Office of the Inspector General (IG) at the Department of Justice in 2007 found that the FBI illegally used NSLs to collect information that was not permitted by the NSL statutes. In addition, the IG found that data collected pursuant to NSLs was stored indefinitely, used to gain access to private information in cases that were not relevant to an FBI investigation, and that NSLs were used to conduct bulk collection of tens of thousands of records at a time,” the letter says.