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US Senate rejects amendment to require warrant to search browsing histories

US Senate

A bipartisan amendment to the PATRIOT Act that would have prevented the American government from accessing Americans’ web browsing information and search history without a warrant was narrowly rejected by the US Senate on May 13 (text here).

“With web browsing and searches, you’re talking about some of the most sensitive, most personal, and most private details of Americans’ lives. Every thought that can come into people’s heads can be revealed in an internet search or a visit to a website. Their health history and medical concerns. Their political views. Their romantic lives and friendships. Their religious beliefs. Collecting this information is as close to reading minds as surveillance can get.  It is digital mining of the personal lives of Americans.

“The question is whether a government agent believes they have the right to look at your web searches. In other words, it’s open season on anyone’s most personal information.

“There is a simple solution: require a warrant. With my amendment, the government can go to the court and, with a warrant, collect whatever it wants from those who actually threaten us.  And, in an emergency, the government can use the emergency provision of FISA, collect the information immediately and settle up with the court later.” — Senator Ron Wyden, sponsor of the amendment

What would the amendment have done? Had the amendment passed, it would have forced the US government to establish probable cause to get a warrant to search people’s browsing history. Currently, Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act allows the government to obtain a secret court order that requires third parties, such as telephone companies, to hand over any “tangible things” (such as books, records, papers and documents) if they are deemed “relevant” to an international terrorism, counterespionage, or foreign intelligence investigation. These Section 215 requests might have been combined with Section 216 to get access to online activity including email contact information and internet browsing histories, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law said in a report.

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Who proposed the amendment? Proposed by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, the amendment was cosponsored by seven Democratic senators, five Republican senators, and one independent senator (Bernie Sanders). Wyden heads the Senate Finance Committee and has called for examining the possibility of the NSO Group and other foreign surveillance companies hacking US citizens and called it a “serious national security issue” in the wake of WhatsApp’s lawsuit.

Why did the amendment fail?With 59 votes, the amendment failed to get the requisite 60 votes to pass in the Senate. Four senators, including Bernie Sanders who was one of the co-sponsors of the amendment, did not vote. Had Sanders been there to vote, along with Democratic Senator Patty Murray (who would have voted yes, according to Vox), the amendment would have passed. It failed 59-37.

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