US Privacy Groups Urge Senate Not to Ram Through NSA Spying Powers

Some of the United States’ largest civil liberties groups are urging Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer not to pursue a short-term extension of the Section 702 surveillance program slated to sunset on December 31.

The more than 20 groups—the Brennan Center for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice among them—oppose plans that would allow the program to continue temporarily by amending “must-pass” legislation, such as the bill needed now to avert a government shutdown by Friday, or the National Defense Authorization Act, annual legislation set to dictate $886 billion in national security spending across the Pentagon and US Department of Energy in 2024.

“In its current form, [Section 702] is dangerous to our liberties and our democracy, and it should not be renewed for any length of time without robust debate, an opportunity for amendment, and—ultimately—far-reaching reforms,” a letter from the groups to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer says. It adds that any attempt to prolong the program by rushed amendment “would demonstrate blatant disregard for the civil liberties and civil rights of the American people.”

The letter, which was first reported by Bloomberg Law, cited reporting by WIRED and CQ Roll Call. Schumer did not respond to a request for comment.

As WIRED has previously reported, surveillance under the 702 program may technically continue for another six months, regardless of whether Congress reauthorizes it by the end of December. The program was last certified by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April 2023 for a full year. “Transition procedures” codified in the statute permit surveillance orders to “continue in effect” until they expire.

The 702 program is controversial for its collection of communications of “US persons.” The program legally targets roughly a quarter million foreigners each year, gathering the content of their text messages, emails, and phone calls, but collaterally intercepts an unknown but presumably large amount of American communications as well. This interception takes place with the compelled cooperation of US telecommunications companies that handle internet traffic at stages along global networks.

The program includes procedures for intercepting, storing, and querying the information in ways that are designed to “minimize” the odds of Americans’ rights being violated, but the rules are also subject to various exemptions. A top criticism of the 702 program is that it permits the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to access the calls and emails of US citizens without a warrant and without evidence they’ve committed a crime.

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