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18 Nov, 2017 18:02

Lawmakers endorse renewing NSA’s most controversial spying powers

Lawmakers endorse renewing NSA’s most controversial spying powers

Senators are pushing to reauthorize some of the US Intelligence agencies’ most sweeping and controversial spying abilities exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden with some token ‘improvements’ as privacy advocates are already crying foul.

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced the Liberty Act bill which will reauthorize the controversial Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This gives US intelligence agencies permission to spy on and store internet metadata and communications of foreign people living outside the US, along with communications of US citizens which get “swept up” in the data collection. This data can then be searched at a later date without a warrant.

The authorization for the George W Bush-era program is set to expire on December 31 if Congress doesn’t renew it. The Liberty Act would extend Section 702 for six years, with a number of small improvements.

The bill will “enhance accountability, and increase protections for queries of Section 702 metadata, among other important reforms,” the senators said.

Some of the spying programs revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are included under Section 702, including PRISM, which sweeps up data from servers of tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

Upstream collection is a form of bulk surveillance used by the NSA to search internet traffic and communications as they’re in transit via cables and routers. Americans who communicate with people overseas or use websites hosted on servers in other countries are exposed to the NSA’s bulk interception tool. The NSA stores this data and it can be searched at a later date.


The Liberty Act would place stricter limits on the government’s ability to search “communications of Americans and persons inside the United States, to ensure this surveillance is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

It would impel government agencies to get a probable cause warrant before “backdoor searching” NSA data collected under Section 702. However, a warrant is only needed to search for evidence of a known crime, meaning it’s still okay to search for foreign intelligence or to see whether a crime may have occurred.  

The Electronic Frontiers Foundation highlights how the bill fails to bring an end to the controversial backdoor searching. It also fails to address the use of secrecy to prevent oversight and transparency.

According to the proposed act, if the NSA determines that particular communications being stored are of no foreign intelligence value, they must be removed within 90 days. However, the NSA isn’t obligated to review said data, and any collected data that it thinks could still have possible value can be kept indefinitely.

Similar legislation has been introduced as Section 702’s expiration date approaches; The USA Rights Act would extend Section 702 for another four years but with reforms included to curb surveillance abilities, including a fix for the backdoor search loophole.

Another bill being touted is the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act. Introduced by Richard Burr (R-NC), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it aims to reauthorize Section 702 for eight years, without reform, but with additional violations of civil liberties.

In fact, it aims to bring back “about” collection, whereby the NSA searches web traffic for any mention of intelligence targets. This means if someone mentions that target in an email, the email’s contents will be viewable, and then storable. The NSA ended this practice in April, to reduce chances of collecting US citizens’ communications.