Several bills that would extend the US government’s ability to grab and search vast numbers of communications without a warrant – including users’ data from companies such as Google and Facebook – are marching toward passage in Congress with little public attention or debate.
US law currently allows these activities under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was adopted in 2008. As former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed, Section 702 is the basis for two enormous warrantless snooping programs: one in which the government demands communications from US-based internet companies, and one in which it allegedly scans massive amounts of the internet traffic that flows between the US and other countries. Although the government cannot legally target people in the US for this monitoring, it scoops up untold quantities of their correspondence “incidentally.”
For years, US human rights advocates have been urging Congress to rein in Section 702. Earlier this month, a key committee in the House of Representatives advanced a bill that would place some restrictions on the government’s ability to search through data gathered under Section 702 – but would harm civil liberties in other respects and extend the law for nearly six more years. Other bills that have been introduced in the Senate would impose more meaningful restrictions on searches of the data and require the authorities to be more transparent about how Section 702 monitoring affects people in the US, but would also renew the law.
If none of these bills pass, Section 702 will expire on December 31, 2017. Human Rights Watch believes this is exactly what should happen: Section 702 is and will always be a law that allows warrantless surveillance in violation of human rights. While the current Senate bills would make improvements, especially by requiring warrants for at least some searches of the data after the government has gathered it, the initial warrantless gathering would remain. This amassing of private e-mails, calls, and other personal information by the intelligence agencies without a judge’s approval is a recipe for abuse – and flies in the face of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which was adopted to prevent precisely such overreaching.
Anyone who is concerned about an extension of US secret surveillance powers should keep a close watch on Congress during the coming weeks. And senators and representatives who believe in civil liberties should be courageous enough to stand up to the intelligence agencies by saying, “Nine years of unaccountable spying on people in the US (and their friends and relatives elsewhere) is more than enough.”