FISA Reauthorization Passes Senate

The Senate has voted to reauthorize Sec. 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It passed the House version of the bill, which lacked some privacy protections for U.S. resident's texts and e-mails and phone calls that some privacy groups had wanted.

The White House backed the bill, which will be headed to the President's desk for his signature.

FISA allows for the accessing of communications with foreign entities, but legislators from both parties had been looking to rein in warrantless searches of the communications of U.S. residents (when they are on the other end of those communications). It is just the latest attempt to address that issue.

The White House had opposed an amendment, which failed in both the House and Senate, that would have ended warrantless backdoor searches of Americans' calls, emails, texts and other communications.

As it was, the bill that passed House and Senate does require, for the first time according to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), that the government obtain a warrant to access data on U.S. persons in criminal investigations and will prevent the FBI from using information collected incidentally from such communications in criminal investigations. Goodlatte said the bill does have meaningful reforms, and he would have preferred more, but that the option was not between a perfect bill and letting the FISA section sunset.

The Open Technology Institute, representing computer companies and others pushing for stronger privacy protections, was not pleased.

“It’s shocking that at a time when our government is singling out communities for increased scrutiny based on their country of origin, faith, or race, the Senate would vote to expand Section 702 surveillance, and to empower the government to warrantlessly search through 702 data for Americans’ communications," said Robyn Greene, policy counsel and government affairs lead at New America’s Open Technology Institute.

“We need to strike a balance between liberty and security and not give the government unchecked surveillance power," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce Committe and a fan of the stronger protections for communications that did not make it onto the bill. "That’s why I opposed today’s surveillance legislation because it will allow the government to spy on American citizens.  We can and should provide for intelligence gathering against terrorism while still protecting Americans’ privacy.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.