New bill expands warrantless spying amid widespread criticism

The U.S. Senate has approved a significant expansion of government surveillance powers, raising alarms over potential violations of civil liberties.

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The U.S. Senate recently passed the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act, reauthorizing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act with amendments that have sparked intense debate over privacy and surveillance on American soil. This decision came despite considerable opposition from privacy advocates, technology experts, and over 20,000 concerned citizens who voiced their disapproval.

The bill, now law after President Joe Biden’s swift endorsement, expands the scope of warrantless surveillance to an unprecedented degree, equating to what some critics have termed the “Make Everyone a Spy” provision. This provision broadens the definition of electronic communications service providers to potentially include any business with communication equipment, vastly increasing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) access to data.

The Senate approved the bill with a vote of 60-34 early Saturday morning. This vote occurred following intense discussions and the rejection of multiple amendments that sought to safeguard privacy rights better. Notably, proposals requiring warrants for spying on American communications were turned down, preserving the bill’s robust surveillance capabilities.

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, expressed her disappointment on social media, calling it “the largest expansion of surveillance on U.S. soil since the Patriot Act.” Sean Vitka, policy director at Demand Progress, criticized the administration and Senate leaders for using fearmongering tactics to pass the bill. Their concerns center on the potential for these new powers to be misused, endangering the civil liberties of ordinary Americans.

The most controversial aspect of the bill is the redefinition of what constitutes an electronic communications service provider. Originally intended to cover major telecommunications and internet companies, the expanded definition could now include virtually any business, from grocery stores to gyms, as long as they have equipment capable of transmitting or storing electronic communications. Critics argue this could lead to widespread surveillance of innocent Americans without their knowledge or consent.

Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Ron Wyden led the charge to introduce amendments aimed at curbing the bill’s reach and protecting American citizens’ privacy. Despite their efforts, the Senate rejected these amendments, with votes showing significant resistance to scaling back the bill’s surveillance capabilities.

The expansion of Section 702 raises significant concerns about privacy rights, particularly regarding how the NSA’s enhanced capabilities could intrude into the personal lives of U.S. citizens. The law’s broad scope could potentially allow for the collection of data from a wide array of sources, leading to unintended surveillance of private communications.

The passage of this bill may also affect the United States’ standing on the global stage, particularly in discussions about internet governance and digital privacy. As other nations observe these developments, the U.S. commitment to privacy rights will likely come under scrutiny.

Despite the backlash, some lawmakers and officials have promised to address the contentious aspects of the law in future legislation. However, the exact nature and scope of these proposed reforms remain unclear.

As the law takes effect, the debate over balancing national security needs with individual privacy rights continues to rage. The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to keep a vigilant watch, ensuring that promises to mitigate the law’s more invasive provisions are honored. In the wake of the bill’s passage, Edward Snowden remarked on social media, “America lost something important today, and hardly anyone heard. The headlines of state-aligned media screech and crow about the nefarious designs of your fellow citizens and the necessity of foreign wars without end, but find few words for a crime against the Constitution.”

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