FBI expansion of surveillance powers meets obstacle

A senator placed a hold on legislation that has provisions to expand the scope of NSLs

A move in the US Senate to provide enhanced surveillance powers to the FBI through the use of National Security Letters met a hurdle Monday after Senator Ron Wyden placed a hold on the 2017 Intelligence Authorization bill over the controversial provisions.

Wyden’s hold is a a measure by which a senator or group of senators can prevent a motion from reaching a vote.

Tech companies and industry and civil rights groups are opposed to what is seen as a wider push by the Senate to increase the scope of the NSLs, which would allow the government to collect Internet records such as browsing history, email metadata, and location information through administrative orders and without court approval.

The 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act includes provisions to expand warrantless government surveillance and takes aim at a valuable independent oversight board, according to Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, who last month voted against the bill in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The current version of the intelligence authorization bill contains a provision in section 803 that would authorize individual FBI field offices to demand Americans’ email and Internet records simply by issuing a NSL, without court oversight, Wyden said in a statement while announcing the hold in the Senate.

The FBI is currently allowed to issue NSLs to collect phone records and financial records, without the approval of a judge, and in 2013 the President’s surveillance review group recommended reforming this authority, to require court oversight such requests, Wyden said.

Last week, separate legislation to give the government enhanced powers for NSLs did not pass, though senators have indicated that they would have another shot at it. The amendment was included as part of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

Wyden said he hoped to be able to work with colleagues to remove the controversial provisions prior to their consideration of the bill by the full Senate. “Until then I will object to the proposal to pass this bill by unanimous consent,” he added.

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