We could be celebrating the New Year by ripping out the fiber optic cables that are sending copies of all our emails to the National Security Agency. But instead, Congress is planning on ringing in 2013 by re-authorizing parts of the FISA Amendments Act, the controversial 2008 bill that allows Americans speaking to people overseas to be surveilled without warrants.
The House of Representatives has already passed a five-year extension on the Act with no reforms. Now the Senate has only a few days left to consider the matter, and our contacts in DC say the Senate is planning on reauthorizing the bill for 5 years without any meaningful amendments to protect privacy or increase transparency, much less allow Senators to debate its merits.
The FISA Amendments Act allows the NSA warrantless access to Americans communicating with a “target” overseas as long as the conversation deals with “foreign intelligence information”—a broad term that can mean virtually anything. And unlike regular warrants, FISA Amendments Act orders can target whole groups of people—so one order could potentially affect thousands of Americans—and don’t require probable cause that a crime has been committed.
Many believe that the government uses this law to justify receiving a fire hose of information about how Americans use the Internet. Whistleblower evidence (PDF) provided by AT&T technician Mark Klein and former NSA employee William Binney show that the NSA has installed equipment in AT&T facilities, creating a copy of all Internet traffic flowing through facility—including our domestic and international emails and web browsing data—and sending that data to the government.
This is exactly the type of government spying on our private lives that the authors of the Constitution banned when they wrote in the Fourth Amendment that we should be “secure in our papers” .
In October, President Obama appeared on The Daily Show where John Stewart asked about the Bush-era warrantless surveillance program (which Obama had soundly criticized as a candidate in 2008). Rather than promise meaningful reform, Obama vaguely claimed that the program has been “modified” and that they had “built a legal structure and safeguards in place that weren’t there before on a whole range of issues.”
We aren’t sure what “issues” the President is talking about, but one thing hasn’t seen any public reform: warrantless wiretapping of our Internet communications.
The nation was shocked when revelations about the NSA’s widespread surveillance program were first unearthed more than 5 years ago, including President Bush’s admission he was violating the surveillance law by spying on selected Americans without warrants. EFF has gathered and presented evidence that the actual spying was much broader, including millions of innocent Americans. EFF’s evidence includes testimony from three former NSA employee whistleblowers as well as schematics and photographs from inside AT&T’s San Francisco facilities where millions of Americans’ communications are being copied to the government and three former NSA employee whistleblowers.
But rather than dismantle this illegal program, Congress gave at least part of it a sheen of legality by passing the FISA Amendments Act in 2008.
Thankfully, a group of bipartisan senators including Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee have placed a hold on the bill. They’re asking for debate and time to consider amendments that would increase privacy protections and add transparency requirements. And they’re asking that the government answer questions about the scope of domestic spying questions the Department of Justice refuses to answer. Senator Wyden is planning to do his best to block the FISA Amendments Act reauthorization until there’s real debate, an honest accounting of how the government is using surveillance powers, and meaningful reform. EFF and other civil libertarian groups are joining up with Senator Wyden in calling for sunlight and reform around FISA.
Please use our action center to contact your member of Congress and urge them to oppose a rubber-stamp of the FISA Amendments Act.
And please also tweet a message to Senator leadership to ensure they don’t rush a vote on this issue without even time for a meaningful debate.
Hey @McConnellPress and @SenatorReid: Don’t ram through a 5-year extension on FISA before the end of the year. https://eff.org/r.2asn