The House of Representatives has passed a bill reauthorizing an important, but controversial, government surveillance surveillance program.
The bill would extend the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) program for another six years. But it was an amendment spearheaded by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) that was the major topic of the day. Amash's amendment would require a warrant for law enforcement officials to query what is known as Section 702, a provision which allows the National Security Agency to collect vast amounts of electronic information on foreign nationals outside the U.S. That information is then shared with other intelligence agencies.
Despite bipartisan support, Amash's amendment failed to pass with a vote of 183 to 233. Congress has been divided over ideological as opposed to party lines when it comes to FISA, with national security hawks on the intelligence committees generally supporting re-authorization, while privacy advocates have pushed for warrant requirements. Supporters say the FISA provisions are crucial to national security, and that failing to reauthorize them would revert the intelligence community back to the pre-9/11 era. Critics argue that the status quo violates Fourth Amendment rights to privacy.
The un-amended bill passed with a vote of 256 to 164.
Technically speaking, U.S. citizens are supposed to be excluded from the 702, however, Circa reported last year that thousands of Americans have had their data collected by the program. This occurs in two ways known as upstream and downstream collection. Upstream collection taps into the "backbone" of the internet to collect information to, about or from a target. The "about" portion is considered controversial, because it could collect information that simply mentions a target (also known as a "selector"). Downstream gathers information based on these selectors, such as a name or email address, associated with a target.
Even without the Amash amendment, the re-authorization bill does include some new provisions protecting civil rights. Specifically, it would require intelligence officials to obtain a warrant to seize a citizens data after they've opened a criminal investigation into that person unrelated to national security. Essentially, it would allow the NSA to continue to collect Americans' data until a criminal investigation is started. At that point, they would need a warrant.
The bill will now move on the Senate, where Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has threatened to filibuster any legislation that does not include the Amash amendment. Congress has until Jan. 19 to reauthorize FISA.