Bipartisan legislation would limit government surveillance on Americans

Background image from Pixabay; seal from Wikipedia | Composite by St. George News

ST. GEORGE — U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is jointly introducing bipartisan legislation aimed at maintaining “a critical balance between protecting national security and ensuring the privacy rights and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans,” according to cosponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Sen. Mike Lee | File photo, St. George News

The Uniting and Strengthening American Liberty Act of 2017 will reauthorize and make key privacy improvements to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act, which is set to expire Dec. 31, according to a statement from the two senators.

Section 702 allows the government to collect sweeping amounts of Internet and other communications, including content and metadata, by targeting communications of foreigners abroad. But in doing so, the government also acquires a vast amount of Americans’ communications and is able to search through such collection without a warrant or even a court order.

The Lee-Leahy legislation would apply stricter limits on the government’s ability to search Section 702 collection for communications of Americans and persons inside the United States, to ensure this surveillance is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Americans have never been more concerned about the security and privacy of their online communications than they are today,” Lee said. “This bill implements some much needed reforms to our surveillance laws that will better protect law-abiding Americans’ privacy in a manner consistent with the Fourth Amendment.”

The bill is modeled after legislation of the same name introduced in the House of Representatives by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Ranking Member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.  Last Congress, Lee and Leahy partnered with the same House Judiciary leaders to pass the USA Freedom Act, which ended the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection and contained significant reforms to other surveillance authorities.

Both the House bill, which earlier this month was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee in a strong bipartisan vote, and this Senate companion bill contain long-overdue reforms to this powerful surveillance authority, according to Lee and Leahy’s statement. They codify an end to “about” collection, enhance accountability and increase protections for queries of Section 702 metadata, among other important reforms.

The Senate legislation also contains a provision based on an amendment that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced in the Senate Intelligence Committee that closes the so-called “backdoor” loophole by extending warrant protections to Americans and persons inside the United States for queries of Section 702 contents in both national security and ordinary criminal investigations.

I am proud to again join with Sen. Lee to ensure that appropriate and commonsense limits are applied to the government’s vast surveillance powers,” Leahy said. “This legislation maintains a critical balance between protecting national security and ensuring the privacy rights and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans, and also provides additional oversight and transparency.

“It is my hope that this bipartisan legislation will result in real and meaningful reform to this powerful surveillance tool.”

Leading civil liberties and national security advocates have praised the legislation.

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, said:  “This bill fixes the most serious problem with Section 702 surveillance today: the government’s ability to read Americans’ e-mails and listen to their telephone calls without a warrant,” and called the legislation “a very promising development in the reform debate.”

The legislation is also supported by the civil liberties and civil rights community, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Constitution Project, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and the Project on Government Oversight, according to the senators’ statement.


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