Expert warns section of House Intel Committee bill would grant feds scary new surveillance powers

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‘Biggest expansion since the Patriot Act’: Why a small provision in a new surveillance reform bill is raising serious concerns

'The NSA could go to McDonald’s and obtain wifi data—without a warrant.'


Mikael Thalen


Posted on Dec 11, 2023

Experts are warning that legislation recently introduced and passed by the House Intelligence Committee would vastly expand the federal government’s surveillance capabilities, potentially turning everyday employees at American businesses into spies.

The legislation, known as H.R. 6611 or the “HPSCI bill,” is allegedly aimed at reforming Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Section 702 was passed to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept data linked to suspected terrorists abroad. Such surveillance, however, has resulted in the mass collection of domestic data as well. Agencies including the FBI have used data collected under 702 to target Americans without a warrant.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and approved by committee on Dec. 7.

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the non-profit Brennan Center for Justice, was one of numerous individuals to raise the alarm over the so-called reform after a section representing “the biggest expansion of surveillance inside the United States since the Patriot Act” was discovered.

“Through a seemingly innocuous change to the definition of ‘electronic service communications provider,’ the bill vastly expands the universe of U.S. businesses that can be conscripted to aid the government in conducting surveillance,” Goitein wrote.

Currently, the government can force companies that have direct access to communications, such as text messages, phone calls, or emails, to turn over data under Section 702.

But under Section 504 of the HPSCI bill, Goitein says, any entity with access to equipment that stores or transfers communications would also be compelled to comply with surveillance demands.

“Hotels, libraries, coffee shops, and other places that offer wifi to their customers could be forced to serve as surrogate spies,” Goitein continued. “They could be required to configure their systems to ensure that they can provide the government access to entire streams of communications.”

Goitein further noted that even a repair person looking to fix your home internet router could be forced into carrying out surveillance activities.

Supporters of the bill have vehemently denied that Section 504 would be used so liberally. But the bill even received criticism from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on his meme account.

“If this bill were to pass, and you went to McDonald’s and used the McDonald’s wifi service, the NSA could go to McDonald’s and obtain that wifi data—without a warrant,” Lee wrote.

Regardless of the promises from the bill’s sponsors, Goitein says the government’s track record shows that it can’t be trusted with such powers.

“At the end of the day, though, the government’s claimed intent matters little,” Goitein added. “What matters is what the provision, on its face, actually allows—because as we all know by now, the government will interpret and apply the law as broadly as it can get away with.”

Goitein is calling on Americans to tell their House representatives to vote no on the bill “if you don’t want to have to worry that the NSA is tapping into communications at the hotel where you’re staying.”

Instead, Goitein argues that support should be given to the Protect Liberty & End Warrantless Surveillance Act, introduced by the House Judiciary Committee, which reauthorizes Section 702 with strong reforms designed to protect Americans’ data.

However, members on the intelligence committee were critical of the other House effort.

“The reforms coming out of the Judiciary Committee are downright terrifying,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).

According to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) both bills will be voted on by the full House.

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*First Published: Dec 11, 2023, 2:40 pm CST