At the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s request, lawmakers gave in an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). This allows the government to get a national security letter (NSL) instead of a warrant, a subpoena that doesn’t require a judge’s approval.
The Senate Intelligence Committee panel recently voted down an authorization bill with the NSL amendment, however, it was reintroduced in an amendment to the ECPA last week by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
In the case the amendment passes, it would allow the FBI to access internet browsing records without a warrant in terrorism and spy instances. With the NSL, federal agencies could access a host of online information, including IP addresses, routing and transmission information, session data, and more, however, they don’t have access directly to the email content.
The bureau told The Washington Post that there’s a limit on how specific the browsing history would be. For example, somebody could visit any part of the newspaper’s website, but law enforcement authorities would only see that they’d visited washingtonpost.com, they wouldn’t see the exact part of the site.
A letter signed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International USA, the Computer Communications Industry Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Google, Facebook and Yahoo, among others, pointed out about a 2007 audit that the FBI illegally used NSLs to collect information that wasn’t permitted by NSL laws. According to the letter, the history of abusing NSLs compounds the civil liberties and human rights concerns brought up by expanding the use of the subpoenas.
As it is, even without email content, the Electronic Communication Transactional Records (ECTRs) and federal agencies would paint “an incredibly intimate picture of an individual’s life,” according to the signers of the letter. The letter goes by:
“ECTRs could include a person’s browsing history, email metadata, location information, and the exact date and time a person signs in or out of a particular online account.
This information could reveal details about a person’s political affiliation, medical conditions, religion, substance abuse history, sexual orientation, and, in spite of the exclusion of cell tower information in the Cornyn amendment, even his or her movements throughout the day.”
According to The Hill, the amendment was one of a few that delayed the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the Email Privacy Act last week. The bill, that the House of Representatives unanimously passed in April, would require investigators to get a warrant before they can force technology companies to hand over customers’ emails or other electronic communications, no matter how old it is.
The Senate committee’s rescheduled the bill for Thursday.