The US House of Representatives passed a bill today to renew the National Security Agency's warrantless internet surveillance program under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FISA) of 2008.
The bill passed with a 256-to-164 vote and still needs to go through the Senate floor, but political analysts say the bill will pass with flying colors.
The bill extends Section 702 of the FISA law —set to expire next week on January 19— for six more years, until 2024.
Despite objections from privacy groups, the bill extends and even enhances the spying powers conferred to the NSA.
Section 702 allows the NSA to collect electronic communications without a warrant from non-US citizens located outside the US. It also allows officials to collect communications to and from these persons to US citizens, effectively harvesting the communications of US nationals without a warrant.
The NSA is also allowed to store these communications inside a database. It had done so since 2001 when the program was set up after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The data in this database has been compiled with the help of US Internet companies such as AT&T, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, who handed over information to US officials without a warrant and without informing their users.
The NSA has also been allowing the FBI to access and search this database for some of the Bureau's investigations.
The program became public in 2008 after the Edward Snowden revelations, and privacy and citizen rights groups have been trying to shut it down ever since, calling it a "backdoor to the Fourth Amendment" that allows US authorities to sift through US and non-US citizens' private conversations without a warrant.
Before voting the bill today, House representatives shot down an amendment that would have forced US law enforcement officials to at least get a warrant when searching for data on US citizens collected in this database.
Privacy advocates from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) point out that the bill voted today also enhances the US government's spy powers by expanding its dragnet data collection.
Under the new bill, FISA Section 702 will now allow the NSA to collect electronic communications of US citizens if they mention certain terms, and not necessarily if they communicate with non-US citizens via email or an online chat.
Furthermore, even if the bill says the FBI must obtain a warrant before searching the NSA database for data on US citizens, a warrant is not necessary if the FBI brands the situation a national security emergency, a term considered too broad and easy to bypass by EFF and ACLU experts.
US President Donald Trump showed his support for the bill today on Twitter, confirming expectations that he'll sign the bill into law once it passes the US Senate floor.
Two years ago, in 2016, privacy groups scored a victory when they convinced Congress to stop another NSA program exposed by Snowden, one that collected bulk metadata on US phone call records.