Last week, Congress passed landmark legislation renewing for six years the US government’s most important surveillance programs under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The legislative process surrounding the bill was fraught and highly divisive for both parties in Congress. Although early judgments cannot be conclusive, the result — continuing the Section 702 program with minor changes — may well signal the ebbing of the wave of reaction from the 2013 Snowden revelations concerning U.S. intelligence spying on the activities of American citizens.
In 2015, a coalition of libertarian-leaning Republicans had combined with liberal privacy-advocate Democrats to force the ending of the so-called metadata (bulk data collection) intelligence collection program with the passage of the USA Freedom Act. In the current legislative battle, the defeat of that coalition on Section 702 reauthorization heralds a new balance of power between security hawks and pro-privacy and libertarian forces.
To review, under Section 702, the government is authorized to direct, without a warrant, US telecom and internet companies — for example, Facebook, Google, and AT&T — to collect information such as e-mails and other communications from foreigners outside the US. Given the geographically anonymous nature of the internet, numerous Americans are swept up in this dragnet, even after the companies have taken steps to minimize these instances. Under a program that was temporarily suspended last year after repeated criticism by the special FISA court, US intelligence agencies were also allowed to query data that was “about” an individual or organization. The “about” data could emerge when a selected communication contained a mention of another person or organization. Read more at AEI