Significant Surveillance Reforms in Section 702 Bill; Much More Must Be Added

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Today, the Republican and Democratic heads of the House Judiciary Committee revealed the “USA Liberty Act,” legislation that would reform and reauthorize an important intelligence surveillance authority that would otherwise sunset on December 31.  The surveillance authority, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, gives the government the ability to compel U.S. communications service providers to disclose, without a warrant, the communications of their users reasonably believed to be foreigners outside the U.S.  The program impacts many Americans who communicate with people abroad and Americans whose communications are inadvertently acquired.

“This legislation marks an important step forward for reining in the overly broad government surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden more than four years ago,” said Nuala O’Connor, President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.  “But, the legislation must do more to protect the rights of both U.S. and global citizens,” she added.

The proposed legislation would correct the intelligence community’s errant reading of existing law under which agencies, such as the NSA, collect the digital communications of people who aren’t surveillance targets and aren’t communicating with targets. Under the bill, only communications to or from a target could be collected. “This would be the most significant improvement in US surveillance law since the 2015 USA FREEDOM Act,” O’Connor said.

“However, the bill fails to close the ‘backdoor search loophole,’ which leaves Americans exposed to surveillance that should be permitted only with a court order based on a showing of probable cause.  It also fails to ensure that people are wiretapped only if there is a good reason for listening in,” she added.

The legislation is expected to be formally introduced in the coming days and to be considered by the full House Judiciary Committee later this month. CDT will work to preserve the positive aspects of the legislation, and to improve it as it moves through the legislative process.

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