U.S. Senate and Biden Administration Shamefully Renew and Expand FISA Section 702, Ushering in a Two Year Expansion of Unconstitutional Mass Surveillance

1 day 3 hours ago

One week after it was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate has passed what Senator Ron Wyden has called, “one of the most dramatic and terrifying expansions of government surveillance authority in history.” President Biden then rushed to sign it into law.  

The perhaps ironically named “Reforming Intelligence and Security America Act (RISAA)” does everything BUT reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). RISAA not only reauthorizes this mass surveillance program, it greatly expands the government’s authority by allowing it to compel a much larger group of people and providers into assisting with this surveillance. The bill’s only significant “compromise” is a limited, two-year extension of this mass surveillance. But overall, RISAA is a travesty for Americans who deserve basic constitutional rights and privacy whether they are communicating with people and services inside or outside of the US.

Section 702 allows the government to conduct surveillance of foreigners abroad from inside the United States. It operates, in part, through the cooperation of large telecommunications service providers: massive amounts of traffic on the Internet backbone are accessed and those communications on the government’s secret list are copied. And that’s just one part of the massive, expensive program. 

While Section 702 prohibits the NSA and FBI from intentionally targeting Americans with this mass surveillance, these agencies routinely acquire a huge amount of innocent Americans' communications “incidentally.” The government can then conduct backdoor, warrantless searches of these “incidentally collected” communications.

The government cannot even follow the very lenient rules about what it does with the massive amount of information it gathers under Section 702, repeatedly abusing this authority by searching its databases for Americans’ communications. In 2021 alone, the FBI reported conducting up to 3.4 million warrantless searches of Section 702 data using Americans’ identifiers. Given this history of abuse, it is difficult to understand how Congress could decide to expand the government’s power under Section 702 rather than rein it in.

One of RISAA’s most egregious expansions is its large but ill-defined increase of the range of entities that have to turn over information to the NSA and FBI. This provision allegedly “responds” to a 2023 decision by the FISC Court of Review, which rejected the government’s argument that an unknown company was subject to Section 702 for some circumstances. While the New York Times reports that the unknown company from this FISC opinion was a data center, this new provision is written so expansively that it potentially reaches any person or company with “access” to “equipment” on which electronic communications travel or are stored, regardless of whether they are a direct provider. This could potentially include landlords, maintenance people, and many others who routinely have access to your communications on the interconnected internet.

This is to say nothing of RISAA’s other substantial expansions. RISAA changes FISA’s definition of “foreign intelligence” to include “counternarcotics”: this will allow the government to use FISA to collect information relating to not only the “international production, distribution, or financing of illicit synthetic drugs, opioids, cocaine, or other drugs driving overdose deaths,” but also to any of their precursors. While surveillance under FISA has (contrary to what most Americans believe) never been limited exclusively to terrorism and counterespionage, RISAA’s expansion of FISA to ordinary crime is unacceptable.

RISAA also allows the government to use Section 702 to vet immigrants and those seeking asylum. According to a FISC opinion released in 2023, the FISC repeatedly denied government attempts to obtain some version of this authority, before finally approving it for the first time in 2023. By formally lowering Section 702’s protections for immigrants and asylum seekers, RISAA exacerbates the risk that government officials could discriminate against members of these populations on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity, religion, or political beliefs.

Faced with massive pushback from EFF and other civil liberties advocates, some members of Congress, like Senator Ron Wyden, raised the alarm. We were able to squeeze out a couple of small concessions. One was a shorter reauthorization period for Section 702, meaning that the law will be up for review in just two more years. Also, in a letter to Congress, the Department of Justice claimed it would only interpret the new provision to apply to the type of unidentified businesses at issue in the 2023 FISC opinion. But a pinky promise from the current Department of Justice is not enforceable and easily disregarded by a future administration. There is some possible hope here, because Senator Mark Warner promised to return to the provision in a later defense authorization bill, but this whole debacle just demonstrates how Congress gives the NSA and FBI nearly free rein when it comes to protecting Americans – any limitation that actually protects us (and here the FISA Court actually did some protecting) is just swept away.

RISAA’s passage is a shocking reversal—EFF and our allies had worked hard to put together a coalition aimed at enacting a warrant requirement for Americans and some other critical reforms, but the NSA, FBI and their apologists just rolled Congress with scary-sounding (and incorrect) stories that a lapse in the spying was imminent. It was a clear dereliction of Congress’s duty to oversee the intelligence community in order to protect all of the rest of us from its long history of abuse.

After over 20 years of doing it, we know that rolling back any surveillance authority, especially one as deeply entrenched as Section 702, is an uphill fight. But we aren’t going anywhere. We had more Congressional support this time than we’ve had in the past, and we’ll be working to build that over the next two years.

Too many members of Congress (and the Administrations of both parties) don’t see any downside to violating your privacy and your constitutional rights in the name of national security. That needs to change.

Matthew Guariglia