Senate Vote Allows FBI Access To Your Browsing History Without A Warrant And What You Can Do About It
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. Senate Vote Allows FBI Access To Your Browsing History Without A Warrant And What You Can Do About It
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.
Solutions Including VPNs And Privacy-Based Browsers:
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.
“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“The Patriot Act should be repealed in its entirety, set on fire and buried in the ground,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight For The Future, told Motherboard.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.”
The US Senate yesterday voted – by a single vote – to allow government agencies like the FBI and CIA to access your browsing history without a warrant.
This means they would not need to show probable cause for believing you have committed a crime before requiring your ISP to hand over its records on your web browsing and search histories …
The Senate is being asked to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which gives government agencies powers to carry out mass electronic surveillance of US citizens. Three amendments were put forward, one of which would have prevented accessing web browsing history without a warrant.
Engadget reports that the privacy amendment came up one vote short, and therefore failed.
The ACLU urged Congress members to add three specific amendments that would limit it if they reauthorize its powers.
One, from Senators Steve Daines and Ron Wyden would have prohibited the warrantless collection of search or browser histories. Senators voted on that Wednesday afternoon, but it failed to pass, coming one yes vote short of the required 60, with several senators including Ben Sasse and Bernie Sanders not voting.
A Politico reporter noted that, according to an aide, Washington senator Patty Murray would have voted yes, but was still flying back to D.C. when the votes were cast.
Use of a VPN provides protection against this kind of surveillance, as it means your ISP would have no way to know which websites you visited.
There Was Some Good News: A second amendment did pass, which allows judges ruling on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests to seek input from independent experts.
The amendment senators did pass, by a 77-19 margin, was introduced by Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) and Mike Lee (R, Utah). As described by the ACLU, it “strengthens the role of independent “friends of the court” to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, ensuring that the court has additional opportunities to hear the views of outside experts.”
In an op-ed published Sunday seeking support for the measures, the senators said “The key to our proposal is to substantially strengthen a program that currently allows FISA judges, in very limited circumstances, to appoint outside legal scholars — called “amici”— to independently analyze FBI surveillance requests that are particularly sensitive…We propose measures that would authorize and actively encourage judges in this secret court to seek independent amicus reviews in all sensitive cases — such as those involving significant First Amendment issues — thereby adding a layer of protection for those who will likely never know they have been targeted for secret surveillance.”
A third amendment, requiring warrants to carry out FISA searches on US citizens, is due to be voted on today.
Can The FBI Access Your Browser History If You Use A VPN?
As many of you are aware, the US Senate recently passed a bill to extend elements of the Patriot Act. Notably, this legislation included parts that would increase the FBI and CIA’s ability to legally access your browser search history without a warrant.
Many organizations, including the ACLU, pushed for an amendment to this bill that would protect the internet privacy of American citizens. However, as of May 15, 2020, these amendments failed to pass. Since other amendments were made to the bill, it is currently being passed to the House of Representatives for another vote before being potentially signed into law.
This Has Some People Wondering, “Can A VPN Protect Me From The FBI Accessing My Browsing History?”
Before we dive in, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room. This is not a sponsored article. It does, however, contain affiliate links that give Android Authority a cut of profits if you choose to make a purchase through them. If you decide to pick up a VPN here, then you’ll be getting a quality VPN service while also helping us keep the lights on.
So, Will A VPN Protect You From The FBI?
The Short Answer Is, Not Necessarily
When law enforcement acquires browsing history, with or without a warrant, their first stop is your internet service provider. Your ISP can see all the sites you visit and it keeps a log of your traffic for just this purpose. However, using a VPN prevents this.
Although browsing with a VPN prevents your ISP from tracking your movements, your ISP may not be the FBI’s only stop on their investigation. They may also track down and request logs from your VPN provider.
Many VPNs claim to keep no logs, but numerous court cases have demonstrated that this is not always the truth. If you’re using a VPN, it’s important to do go with one that you trust. In the end, just using a VPN only shifts your vulnerability from your ISP to your VPN provider.
Multiple Protective Measures
Experts such as Edward Snowden advocate for multiple actively managed lines of defense for true internet security. One of the best tools at your disposal to use in addition to a VPN is the Tor Browser.
Tor is a system that routes all of your web traffic through random, publicly listed entry nodes. It anonymizes your behavior by bouncing your traffic through multiple relays and mixing it with other users. This makes your actual chain of behavior essentially impossible to follow.
For maximum privacy, your best bet is to use a VPN and a secure browser such as Tor. This does, however, come at the cost of significantly reduced speeds.
Make Good Decisions
The age-old argument that’s often trotted out when government power is expanded to trespass on individual privacy is this: “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to fear.”
While the concept is sound enough in theory, it’s all too often used to make authoritarian measures taste a bit more palatable. It insinuates that anyone concerned with digital privacy is only concerned about it because they have something to hide.
In my view, this is a cowardly position that kowtows to authority and demonstrates a clear ignorance about the ways in which power has frequently been misused throughout history for personal and political motives. You’re free, of course, to disagree. You have individual rights, after all.
That said, don’t be stupid. If you go on the internet to break the law, you’re taking risks no matter how well you try to protect yourself. Don’t lean on a VPN to try to get away with things you know you shouldn’t be doing anyway.
Can The FBI Access My Browsing History?
The kind of websites a person visits can tell you a lot about them. For instance, if someone is visiting ISIL message boards or googling bomb recipes, that might indicate future criminal behavior. And of course federal law enforcement would like as much access as possible to information that might help them prevent or solve crimes. So does that mean they can access your internet browsing history?
Currently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation needs a warrant to view your web activity, but the agency is pushing for an amendment that would allow it to access your internet browsing history without a warrant in terrorism and spy cases.
Letters of Security
The change has to do with the FBI’s use of National Security Letters, or NSLs, when conducting investigations. NSLs don’t require court orders, therefore there is no warrant and no judicial determination of probable cause for the information the agency is seeking. Furthermore, most NSLs come with a gag order attached, prohibiting the person or entity subject to the request from even disclosing that it has received an NSL.
As it stands now, the FBI can only access four types of basic subscriber information from internet companies using an NSL: your name, address, length of service, and telephone bill records. The FBI considers this limitation a “typo,” and contends the bureau should be able to obtain “electronic communication transactional records,” including include a person’s internet protocol address, which websites she is visiting, and how much time she spends on a given site. FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress the current limitation “affects our work in a very, very big and practical way.”
To Warrant, Or Not To Warrant
But privacy advocates disagree, saying the change would “dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about users’ online activities without oversight.” A letter sent to Congress and signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others claims the additional information “would paint an incredibly intimate picture” of a person’s life, including her political affiliation, medical conditions, religion, and even daily routine.
And without independent judicial review, there would be no way to verify if the FBI was, as it contends it will, limiting its use of NSLs to terrorism or spy cases. The FBI made a similar push for browsing history access six years ago, and was rebuffed, and the Senate Intelligence Committee recently voted out an authorization bill with the NSL amendment. We’ll see whether this latest legislative effort will give the feds access to your latest internet activity.
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