Senate vote allows FBI access to your browsing history without a warrant

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A single vote made all the difference

Why it matters: The US has just voted to allow the FBI and other security agencies to access American citizens’ web histories without requiring a warrant. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) were trying to install privacy protections into the Patriot Act, but the amendment failed to pass by a single vote.

The Patriot act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism act) is a controversial piece of legislation that was made into law following the September 11 attacks. It gives law enforcement extra powers of surveillance, including record and private property searchers without notifying the individuals.

As reported by The Register, an addition to the Patriot Act, which is due to be renewed this week, would allow agencies to collect people’s browsing histories without requiring a warrant.

Wyden and Daines led the charge in trying to prevent the Patriot act changes by installing a warrant requirement, but the bipartisan amendment fell short of the 60-vote threshold by one vote, with many of those who were likely to vote in favor, including former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, absent.

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“Is it right at this unique time when millions of law-abiding citizens are at home, for the government to be able to spy on their internet searches and web browsing without a warrant?” said Wyden.

“Should law-abiding Americans have to worry about their government looking over their shoulders from the moment they wake up in the morning and turn on their computers to when they go to bed at night? I believe the answer is no. But that’s exactly what the government has the power to do without our amendment.”

The addition to the Patriot act was drafted by Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Not only does it allow the collection of search and browsing data in section 215 of the law without probable cause, but that data is also likely to be stored and made available to multiple US agencies.

With Covid-19 causing millions of Americans to use the internet more than ever, the vote has come as a blow to privacy advocates. “The Patriot Act should be repealed in its entirety, set on fire and buried in the ground,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight For The Future, told Motherboard. “It’s one of the worst laws passed in the last century, and there is zero evidence that the mass surveillance programs it enables have ever saved a single human life.”

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Image credit: mark reinstein and AndriiKoval via Shutterstock

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