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US web browsing protected from warrantless surveillance

By Fabrice Pierre-Toussaint

Staff Writer for Telegraph Local | See my LinkedIn

House lawmakers have struck a deal on an amendment to protect innocent Americans from being spied on by their own government online, after three days of negotiations.

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“After extensive bicameral, bipartisan deliberations, there will be a vote to include a final significant reform to Section 215 [of the USA Patriot Act] that protects Americans’ civil liberties,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat of California, said. “Without this prohibition, intelligence officials can potentially have access to information such as our personal health, religious practices, and political views without a warrant,” she added.

The House is preparing to vote as early as this week on the surveillance reauthorization bill, which will reinstate several key tools used by the FBI to conduct foreign intelligence investigations.

The Lofgren-Davidson amendment will require the FBI to obtain a warrant even if there’s only a possibility that the data it seeks is tied to a U.S. person. If the government wishes to access the IP addresses of everyone who has visited a particular website, it could not do so without a warrant unless it can “guarantee” that no U.S. persons will be identified.

“For too long, Americans’ most private information has been compromised by vague laws and lax privacy protections,” Warren Davidson, a Republican of Ohio, said.

“With the vote on the Lofgren-Davidson Amendment to FISA reform this week, we take an important step toward restoring Americans’ long-neglected Fourth Amendment rights,” he added. “Protecting Americans’ internet browser searches from warrantless surveillance is a modest, though important first step. With the amendment’s adoption, I will be voting to reauthorize the expired sections of FISA, and urge my colleagues to do the same.”

Sources from gizmodo.com states that when the bill was taken up by the House Rules Committee in mid-March, a provision was attached to attract Republican votes that gave the U.S. attorney general final authority over investigations involving U.S. politicians.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who cosponsored a Senate version of the amendment, has signed off on the House text, saying in a statement that it will also prevent the government from collecting data from virtual private networks that might be used by Americans. “Should the government be interested in who visited a website or watched a YouTube video, if there is any possibility those people are U.S. persons, the collection is prohibited,” he said.

“Finally, if, despite these clear prohibitions, a mistake is made and U.S. person records are collected, they must be immediately deleted,” Wyden added.

Wyden’s version of the amendment, which was cosponsored by Republican Steve Daines, fell one vote shy of passing earlier this month. Two U.S. senators not present during the vote later said they would have voted in favor had they been in the capital at the time.

Up until Tuesday morning, Lofgren and Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was still fleshing out the exact language of the amendment. Sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations told Gizmodo on Sunday that early versions of the text were thought to contain a significant loophole that would enable warrantless surveillance of Americans’ internet activities to continue.

Schiff had reportedly agreed early on that the FBI should be required to get a warrant before targeting specific Americans by name, early copies of the text were thought to be inadequate when it came to gathering data on who had visited a particular website or viewed a particular piece of online content, such as a YouTube video.

A central topic to the discussion was how to protect innocent Americans caught up in FBI investigations involving U.S.-based IP addresses, which foreign actors can use to mask their locations.

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A Schiff spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

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