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Congress Unsure of Internet Data Collected by Government as PATRIOT Act Heads for Reauthorization

In a letter sent by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden to Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, he asked if the numbers disclosed by the government in its annual transparency report listing “unique identifiers” included its collection of web browsing, search histories, and emails from citizens and organizations.

Under § 215 of the PATRIOT Act (codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1861, with 11 lengthy subsections), the government is allowed to conduct mass surveillance of organizations, businesses, and citizens, all in the name of “national security.” But the data disclosed by the government in its report fails to say how those identifiers related to collected on web browsing and emails.

Wyden wrote in the letter that while clarification on this point “may help put into context the scale of the government’s collections of email communications, I’m concerned it does not necessarily apply to web browsing and internet searches.” He said the “ambiguity [in the government’s report] creates the likelihood the Congress and the American people may not be given the information to realize the scale of warrantless government surveillance of their use of the internet.”

In May, Wyden co-sponsored an amendment to the PATRIOT Act, called the Wyden-Daines Privacy Amendment, which would explicitly ban federal agencies from using the Act to collect internet data without a warrant. But that proposed amendment failed by one vote after several senators who would have voted for it didn’t show up to vote.

Now, the reauthorization bill is going before the House, and privacy advocates are calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to resurrect the Wyden-Daines amendment. Over 50 organizations have signed a letter to Pelosi asking that the amendment be re-added to the bill. 


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