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US Senate votes against ban on unwarranted internet surveillance

Image credit: Splosh | Dreamstime

The US Senate came one vote short of approving a proposal to prevent federal law enforcement from obtaining internet users' browsing information or search histories without seeking a warrant.

The bill, which was an amendment to existing law, required 60 supporting votes to pass and the final tally came up with only 59 ayes and 37 nays – but the failure was only due to a lack of attendance. Four senators were unable to cast their vote, as some were quarantined due to the coronavirus or others were unable to attend the gathering in Washington DC, and one official was set to vote in favour of the move.

The new amendment was proposed by two Senators who aimed to have enforcement establish probable cause or a reason for suspicion prior to obtaining a warrant while limiting the powers of investigation.

“To remove internet website browsing information and search history from scope of authority to access certain records for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations,” the amendment document said.

The two senators, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Steve Daines of Montana, have long opposed the expansion and renewal of surveillance laws that the government uses to track and fight terrorists. They argue that the law can infringe on people’s rights.

“Should law-abiding Americans have to worry about their government looking over their shoulders from the moment they wake up in the morning and turn on their computers to when they go to bed at night?” Wyden asked. “I believe the answer is no. But that’s exactly what the government has the power to do without our amendment.”

The bill was focused on amending Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was added in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. It allows the government to obtain internet activity from third parties without a warrant if deemed “relevant” to an international terrorism, counterespionage, or foreign intelligence investigation.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell encouraged senators to vote against Wyden and Daines’ amendment, saying the legislation was already a “delicate balance”. He also warned changing it could mean the underlying provisions won’t be renewed. McConnell has proposed the initial warrantless search, which also gives attorney general William Barr the power to investigate intelligence gathered through FBI surveillance.

“We cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good when key authorities are currently sitting expired and unusable,” McConnell said on the Senate floor before the vote.

“There is little information that is more personal than your web browsing history,” Wyden told US news outlet Recode. “If you know that a person is visiting the website of a mental health professional, or a substance abuse support group, or a particular political organisation, or a particular dating site, you know a tremendous amount of private and personal information about that individual.”

He argued that getting access to somebody’s web browsing history is “almost like spying on their thoughts,” stressing that this level of surveillance ought to require a warrant.

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