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There's a battle on over two US spying laws: One allows snooping on citizens – one bans it

Congress mulls S702 reauth law and USA Rights Act

Wyden ain't happy

One of the key drivers of the USA Rights Act, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), has persistently flagged worrying abuses of the surveillance services that he has learned through top-secret briefings to the Senate Intelligence Committee of which he is a member.

Wyden will often ask pointed questions of intelligence heads at public briefings, and on many occasions has expressed surprise at the unequivocal answers given, answers that have been repeatedly changed days or weeks later.

In the USA Rights Act, one part of the legislation places limitations on the Attorney General and/or Director of National Intelligence, stating that they "may not request assistance from an electronic communication service provider" without proving that the request is "narrowly tailored to the surveillance at issue," and would give that provider the right to reject a request if it is not "explicitly approved by the court."

The inclusion of that wording strongly implies that many companies, such as ISPs and internet giants like Google, are currently under orders to hand over communication data as a matter of course.

That sounds very similar to the NSA's controversial PRISM program that was justified under Section 702 but which US government officials insisted was not used on domestic targets without a warrant and was only used in cases of counterterrorism.

Based on what has emerged about the use of section 702 in recent months, and the changes proposed under the reauthorization act, it appears as though that claim – that no US citizens are targeted by tapping data centers – is less than truthful.

Secret interpretations

In other words, the US government is spying on its citizens and building vast databases on its citizens that it can access at any point while claiming it isn't doing anything of the sort. Except, when faced with losing the secret interpretations used to carry out that activity, the security services have pushed for a reauthorization of the law that explicitly allows them to do exactly what they claim they are not doing.

Unsurprisingly, Senator Wyden is not very happy about any of this.

"Without common-sense protections for Americans' liberties, this vast surveillance authority is nothing less than an end-run around the Constitution," he said in a statement. "Our bill gives intelligence agencies the authority they need to protect our country, but safeguards our essential freedoms with new provisions requiring judicial oversight and pushing back on the creeping expansion of secret law."

Other lawmakers made the same point. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said: "Congress must not continue to allow our constitutional standard of 'innocent until proven guilty' to be twisted into 'If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.'"

And House Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who represents the home of many Silicon Valley companies, pushed the USA Rights Act as "the best way to shut the backdoor on warrantless spying and to protect Americans' constitutional rights." ®

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