Lawmakers move to end warrantless surveillance of US residents

A new bill would require law enforcement agencies to get warrants before searching NSA databases for U.S. communications

A new bill in Congress would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants before targeting U.S. residents in searches of electronic communications collected by the National Security Agency.

The End Warrantless Surveillance of Americans Act, introduced Tuesday by three members of the House of Representatives, would end the so-called surveillance back door that allows the FBI and other agencies to search U.S. emails, texts and other data swept up in NSA surveillance of overseas communications.

Under current law, if the NSA collects U.S. communications by mistake when targeting the electronic communications of terrorism suspects, the FBI is allowed to search for those domestic records in NSA databases without a court-ordered warrant. The so-called loophole in Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches gives the FBI access to the content of "tens of thousands" of emails and other communications, according to Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and cosponsor of the new bill.

"If Congress truly wants to end bulk collections of U.S. persons data, then we must also look at the warrantless surveillance" in this NSA program, Lofgren said in a statement. "Failing to do so all but ensures the nation's spy agencies will continue to violate Americans' privacy and the Fourth Amendment."

The bill would also forbid government agencies from mandating or requesting tech companies to build back doors into their devices or software that allow surveillance agencies access to communications. In recent months, FBI Director James Comey and other officials in President Barack Obama's administration have called for mobile phone companies to build back doors into encrypted services on devices.

"Right now ... the government is allowed to snoop and spy on the content of a citizen's phone calls, texts and emails -- all without a warrant," Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and bill cosponsor, said in a statement. "Failure to address this gaping loophole ... leaves the constitutional rights of millions of Americans vulnerable and unprotected."

The bill mirrors an amendment that the sponsors tried to add to the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end an NSA program that collects U.S. phone records in bulk, but that is separate from the NSA's overseas surveillance of email and other electronic communications.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the USA Freedom Act last week, but voted down the amendment. Republican leaders of the House had promised to kill the phone records bill if the language from the End Warrantless Surveillance of Americans Act was added, committee leaders said.

Last June, the House also voted 293-123 to approve a similar amendment in a Department of Defense funding bill, but the amendment was stripped out before final approval.

Representatives of the NSA and FBI didn't immediately respond to requests for comments on the End Warrantless Surveillance of Americans Act.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags securityU.S. House of RepresentativesU.S. National Security AgencyJames ComeylegislationgovernmentinternetprivacyU.S. FBITed PoeZoe Lofgren

More about FBIFreedomHouse of RepresentativesIDGNational Security AgencyNewsNSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Grant Gross

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place