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The US Senate has narrowly rejected a bill to expand FBI surveillance. The bill would expand the FBI’s use of national security letters (NSL). NSLs allow the FBI to demand certain types of records from telephone and Internet companies without warrant, and are often accompanied by gag orders preventing the companies from informing their customers that the data has been turned over to law enforcement. This proposal would have increased the scope of what the FBI can request in an NSL.

The proposed bill would have allowed the FBI to obtain records relating to emails such as timestamps as well as the sender and recipient. However, the actual content of the emails could not be requested using an NSL. The FBI could also obtain browsing history through NSLs, allowing the agency to see what sites a person visited and how long they spent there. Another part of the bill would make permanent a provision from the Patriot Act which is set to expire in 2019. That provision allows law enforcement to conduct surveillance on “lone wolf” suspects which have no ties to terrorist organizations.

Due to the rules of the senate, 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. However, only 58 were obtained in this vote. It would have been 59, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell changed his vote at the last minute when it was clear there would not be 60 votes in favor. McConnell is taking advantage of a procedural rule that will allow him to bring the matter to a vote again in the near future if he votes against it. With McConnell actually in favor of the bill, only one senator needs to be persuaded to support it for it to pass the next vote.

Senator Ron Wyden criticized the proposal saying, “FBI agents will be able to demand the records of what websites you look at online, who you email and chat with, and your text message logs, with no judicial oversight whatsoever. The reality is the FBI already has the power to demand these electronic records with a court order under the Patriot Act. In emergencies, the FBI can even obtain the records right away and go to a judge after the fact. This isn’t about giving law-enforcement new tools, it’s about the FBI not wanting to do paperwork.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also urged senators to vote against the proposal. In a letter to the senate, the ACLU stated that the bill, “would dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive electronic information without any court oversight.”

Senator John McCain, one of the sponsors of the bill, defended the proposal by stating, “In the wake of the tragic massacre in Orlando, it is important our law enforcement have the tools they need to conduct counterterrorism investigations and track ‘lone wolves,’ or (Islamic State)-inspired terrorists who do not have direct connections to foreign terrorist organizations but who seek to harm Americans.”

Senator Richard Burr, the other sponsor of the bill, stated after the vote, “I am disappointed that the Senate is currently at a stalemate even though the majority clearly supports this important amendment. The threat posed by the Islamic State and other terror groups continues to grow…We cannot sit idly by while more Americans are endangered.”

Do you agree or disagree with the proposed bill? Will the senate approve it at the next vote? Leave your comments below.


Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.