Senate Republicans try to thwart email privacy protections

The Senate took action last week in two separate bills to allow federal law enforcement to obtain personal electronic communications metadata, including email information, from technology companies without a warrant.

On Tuesday, May 24, the Intelligence Committee passed the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which appropriates funding for “intelligence-related” activities of the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, NSA and FBI, among other federal agencies.

In the bill, a provision was added allowing the FBI to use its National Security Letters (NSL) authority to request “electronic communication transactional records” from service providers, previously deemed illegal by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2008.

While the amendment’s author is unknown due to the secrecy of the proceedings, interpretation of the clause could allow the FBI to obtain records of individuals URL search history.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Committee’s ranking Democrat, was the only member to vote against the bill.

“This bill takes a hatchet to important protections for Americans’ liberty,” Wyden said in a statement after the Committee vote was recorded. “Neither the intelligence agencies, nor the bill’s sponsors have shown any evidence that these changes would do anything to make Americans more secure. I plan to work with colleagues in both chambers to reverse these dangerous provisions.”

Previous to DOJ’s ruling in 2008, the FBI had collected email records with NSLs under the authority of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986).

In February, Bureau Director James Comey told the Committee that expanding NSL powers to include electronic communication metadata was a top priority.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a vote on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2015 — a similar bill to the House’s Email Privacy Act, passed unanimously in April.

The Senate’s version would require federal agencies to obtain a warrant before ordering that communications companies turn over emails on their servers which are more than 180 days old.

However, an amendment to the Senate bill was introduced by Judiciary member John Cornyn (R-TX) which complies with Comey’s request to grant the FBI more subpoena power.

“NSLs have a sordid history,” staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Andrew Crocker told The Intercept. “They’ve been abused in a number of ways, including . . . targeting of journalists and . . . (collection of) an essentially unbounded amount of information.”

National Security Letter requests, a method of collecting evidence for criminal suspects used by the government since the 1970s, increased by 50 percent to just under 50,000 between 2014 and 2015.

NSLs most often require the recipient to keep the request confidential through the issuance of a gag order.

 

[The Intercept] [Reuters] [Image courtesy unitedliberty.org]