US Senate warned against rushed renewal of controversial surveillance authority

More than 30 civil liberties and privacy groups wrote to US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, urging him to rethink reauthorizing a contentious surveillance program.

The organizations are worried about the language reauthorizing a controversial federal electronic surveillance program in a must-pass government spending bill.

The program in question is Section 702 of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which enables the government to gather vast amounts of intelligence under the broad category of foreign intelligence information without first seeking a warrant.

Section 702 is set to expire at the end of the year. Meanwhile, federal spending authority will lapse after November 17th, triggering a government shutdown – unless a stopgap spending bill is enacted, and FISA language is reportedly included in the latter.

“In its current form, this authority is dangerous to our liberties and our democracy, and it should not be renewed for any length of time without robust debate, an opportunity for amendment, and – ultimately – far-reaching reforms,” the groups, led by the Brennan Center, wrote in the letter.

“Allowing a short-term reauthorization of Section 702 to be slipped into a must-pass bill would demonstrate a blatant disregard for the civil liberties and civil rights of the American people.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Demand Progress, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, among others, signed the letter.

Many of the groups are instead backing a bipartisan surveillance bill called the Government Surveillance Reform Act. The legislation has more than 20 co-sponsors across the Senate and House.

If passed, it would prohibit the collection of US-based communications and require US law enforcement and intelligence agencies to obtain a court warrant before searching the data of US citizens against the FISA data set.

“Americans know that it’s possible to confront our country’s adversaries ferociously without throwing our constitutional rights in the trash can. But for too long, surveillance laws have not kept up with changing times,” said Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat representing Oregon, who is a co-author of the bill.

The letter argues an immediate extension of Section 702 is unnecessary because the authorization for the special court overseeing FISA programs won’t expire until April 2024.

The co-signers also point to “routine” abuses of the Section 702 program, including improper searches by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court found earlier this year that the FBI had improperly used the Section 702 database to search for information about a US Senator, a state senator, and a state-level judge. Black Lives Matter protestors were also targeted.

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