The US law known as the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA), which grants warrantless surveillance powers to spy agencies, will this April once again be up for renewal, but also reform.
However, the way lawmakers are said to be going about it is already taken as a cause for concern, given that it involves Section 702, which regulates mass electronic surveillance – and that the House Intelligence Committee reportedly wants to keep some of the debate about this behind closed doors.
Any secrecy around an act that is already so burdened with controversy – because although designated as “foreign” it also enables mass surveillance of Americans – is sure to cause a stir, particularly among privacy advocates, but also political opponents.
It’s worth noting, as reported by Politico, that even a partially secret House floor debate would be a first in more than 15 years – since 2008, and in general, a rare occurrence – four times in all up to now since 1830.
It was in 2008 that FISA received Section 702 after the law amended after 9/11 became the subject of public and media scrutiny due to illegal surveillance. The NSA is collecting and storing people’s communications and the FBI is one of those allowed to use this information without a warrant.
Concerning the point of how Section 702, despite being presented as a way to deal with foreign threats actually also allows for the collection of communications of Americans, it has emerged over the years that this particular kind of personal data is not only collected but regularly accessed – for example, 3.4 million times in 2021, by the FBI.
Now the way to reform the act had the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees come up with two different, and competing proposals late last year, and this in-fighting continues to this day.
It is in this context that reports are suggesting a part of the debate is likely to be done in secret – an initiative that some interpret as those behind one of the drafts, the House Intelligence Committee, feeling it is not winning the legislative feud.
The fear is that a compromise here will mean FISA will essentially continue to be implemented as before.
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