National Security Agency logo on computer chip

House of Representatives approves continued NSA internet surveillance

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The US House of Representatives has approved legislation to continue the National Security Agency (NSA)’s controversial internet surveillance program, sparking criticism from privacy advocates.

Section 702, a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), allows the NSA to collect online communications from foreign nationals and US citizens’ communication with foreign nationals.

The extent of this program was made public following the huge leak of NSA documents to the international media by Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and NSA contractor. These documents revealed that the NSA could collect emails and other communications without a warrant through upstream and downstream surveillance. This had been practised and the content searched. The NSA was also found to have secretly accessed Google and Yahoo data centres to collect hundreds of millions of users’ data, tracked the online sexual activity of “radicalisers”, and spied on charities, world leaders and even users of World of Warcraft and Second Life.

Other agencies of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance were implicated in these leaks, including the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Following Snowden’s leaks, the US government began to publish annual transparency reports about the use of surveillance tools.

Last renewed in 2012, Section 702 was due to expire on January 19, but the likely passing of the bill will allow for warrantless internet surveillance to continue until 2023. Some representatives attempted before the vote to get support for an amendment which would require the acquisition of a warrant to read a US citizen’s incidentally-collected data.

“You pass this amendment [and] we are flying blind in our fight against terrorists,” said Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House. “The consequences are really high.”

In the end, Representatives voted 256-164 in favour of renewing the program, with the vote mainly split along party lines and largely backed by Republicans. Next, it will require the approval of the Senate and White House. Despite threats by both Democratic and Republican Senators to filibuster the bill, it is expected to proceed without any serious setbacks.

According to Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority Leader: “The intelligence community and the Justice Department depend on these vital authorities to protect the homeland and keep Americans safe.”

James Comey, who served as director of the Federal Bureay of Investigation (FBI) until his dismissal by President Donald Trump in May 2017, tweeted his support for the program, describing it as a “vital and carefully overseen tool to protect this country”.

However, a blog post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns for online privacy, criticised the decision: “Because of these votes, broad NSA surveillance of the internet will likely continue, and the government will still have access to Americans’ emails, chat logs, and browsing history without a warrant. Because of these votes, this surveillance will continue to operate in a dark corner, routinely violating the Fourth Amendment and other core constitutional protections.”

Confusion was caused before the vote due to tweets posted by President Donald Trump, which appeared to express scepticism towards Section 702, due to claims that the program may have been used against him by the Obama administration to spy on his 2016 presidential campaign.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” Trump tweeted. The “phony dossier” is a reference to a dossier of unsubstantiated incriminating and embarrassing material about Trump gathered from Russian sources.

According to the Washington Post, following Trump's Tweet, Speaker Ryan spent 30 minutes on the phone explaining the difference between domestic and foreign surveillance to the president.

Later, the President added: “With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process [by which US citizens mentioned in intelligence reports may be deanonymised] since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”

Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, dismissed reporters’ questions about the Trump’s self-contradictory Tweets at a press briefing. “It wasn’t confusing to me, I’m sorry if it was for you,” she said.

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