An attempt to stop law enforcement agencies from accessing Americans’ internet histories without a warrant has failed in the US Senate – by a single vote.
Introduced by Democratic senator Ron Wyden and Republican Steve Daines, the measure was an amendment to a bill reauthorising certain lapsed intelligence programmes. While that bill does introduce certain new privacy protections, including a restriction on how cell phone data may be used, many civil libertarians both inside and outside Congress are concerned that it does not do enough to keep Americans safe from excessive surveillance, especially in their online lives.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Mr Wyden put the case to his colleagues that the government’s power to gain access to browsing and search history should be curtailed, reminding them that during the current pandemic, tens of millions of Americans staying at home are using the internet more than ever as their only connection to the outside world – including for very private personal reasons that they should be entitled to keep to themselves.
“Collecting this information is as close to reading minds as surveillance can get,” said Mr Wyden on the floor. “It is digital mining of the personal lives of the American people … without this bipartisan amendment, it is open season on anybody’s most personal information.”
The amendment needed 60 votes to pass, but in the end, only 59 senators backed it. Among the other 41, four didn’t vote at all: two Republicans, Lamar Alexander and Ben Sasse, and two Democrats, Patty Murray and Bernie Sanders.
Mr Alexander is in quarantine, and Ms Murray was apparently in transit back to Washington, DC; her office has said she would have voted for the amendment had she been there. Mr Sanders has not yet explained why he did not vote.
The Senate did pass another amendment that bolsters third-party oversight in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court process. Tabled by senators Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee, it passed 79-11. Aside from its substantive content, the Leahy-Lee amendment also means that the overall bill will need to go back to the House of Representatives after it is passed by the Senate, setting up another round of wrangling over its contents.
The house too has its share of privacy advocates in both parties, many of whom share Mr Wyden’s views on internet surveillance. Speaking of Americans stuck at home during the pandemic, he asked: “Don’t those Americans deserve some measure of privacy? Don’t they deserve better than their government’s snooping into the websites they visit? How can this be that the government can spy on them when they are not suspected of doing anything wrong?
“And most importantly, how is this okay in America?”