Nov 7, 2023 - Technology

Lawmakers unveil first bill to renew controversial surveillance program

Image of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore)

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) at the U.S. Capitol Building in May. Wyden is one of the co-sponsors on a bill looking to reform and reauthorize FISA Section 702. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.

A key group of bipartisan lawmakers Tuesday introduced their blueprint for renewing a controversial surveillance tool before it expires at the end of the year.

Why it matters: The bill marks the first piece of legislation that lawmakers have introduced in the year-long battle to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

  • The program's expiration, intelligence officials have warned, would impede investigations into ransomware, terrorism and other online crimes.

The big picture: FISA Section 702 allows intelligence agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance of non-American citizens outside the U.S. during investigations.

  • But some privacy hawks, progressives and conservatives have expressed concerns about how the program inadvertently collects texts, emails and other communications from U.S. citizens who are talking to foreigners abroad.
  • The information collected through Section 702 requests is stored for several years in a searchable database that intelligence agencies can later access in other investigations.

Details: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), along with Reps. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), introduced the Government Surveillance Reform Act on Tuesday.

  • The 206-page bill would reauthorize Section 702 for four years, prohibit the collection of U.S.-based communications and place new warrant requirements on intelligence agencies' searches for 702 data.
  • The bill would allow for searches of Section 702 information in cases where a person is the subject of a criminal warrant, where there's an imminent threat of death or serious physical harm to others, and when a third-party legally consents on behalf of the person the query is about.
  • The bill also requires intelligence agencies to get prior approval from the attorney general before conducting a search for communications about or from a U.S. citizen. These searches can only be approved in cases related to terrorism, drug trafficking, attacks on critical infrastructure or government officials and cyberattacks.
  • Lawmakers are also pushing the intelligence community to develop a system to destroy certain data obtained through FISA Section 702 within five years of collection.

What they're saying: "Americans understand that it's possible to confront our countries' adversaries ferociously without throwing our constitutional rights into the garbage can," Wyden said during a press conference Tuesday.

  • "Our Founding Fathers made it clear that if government agencies want to read an American's private communications, they should get a warrant," he added.

Between the lines: Privacy advocates, progressives and conservatives have been pushing for a warrant requirement for queries of Section 702 data following reports of misuse and potential abuses of the program.

  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court found earlier this year that the FBI had improperly used the Section 702 database to search for information about a U.S. senator, a state senator and a state-level judge.

The other side: The Biden administration believes the new legislation is "both the wrong fit for what we're doing and operationally unworkable," a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the bill's release.

  • However, during the same call, the senior administration official admitted that the White House had yet to see the full bill text.

What we're watching: Congress has just seven weeks to push either the new bill or another piece of legislation through to reauthorize FISA Section 702.

  • However, with a looming government shutdown and funding authorization bills dominating Capitol Hill deliberations right now, it's difficult to see how lawmakers will make time to focus on this issue.
Go deeper