Contentious surveillance program likely to continue
WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives voted Thursday to renew a controversial surveillance program.
The Senate is likely to vote on the bill next week before the program expires Jan. 19. The president supports the House action, according to the White House.
The program is known as Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act. The Section 702 program was approved by Congress in 2008 to increase the government’s ability to track and thwart foreign terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Q: What is the Section 702 program designed to do?
A: The law gives U.S. intelligence agencies the power to spy on the electronic communication and phone calls of foreigners residing outside the USA to try to gather information about any terrorist plots or activities.
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: The problem, according to privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, is that the emails, photos, texts and other electronic communication of U.S. citizens and legal U.S. residents are collected while our government spies on foreigners.
That could happen if a citizen communicated with a foreigner who was under surveillance, even if that foreigner wasn’t suspected of being a terrorist. It could happen if two Americans communicated with one another and mentioned the name of a foreigner under surveillance.
Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Americans are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement officials typically have to go to court and ask a judge for a search warrant. They must show probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found.
Q: Isn’t it impossible for U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on foreigners without scooping up some American data in the process?
A: Yes, it’s unrealistic to think they won’t see any messages from Americans who communicate with foreign nationals. The problem, critics say, is not that the information is collected but what is done with it after it is gathered.
The information becomes part of a database that the FBI or other federal law enforcement agencies could search to find evidence that Americans are engaged in domestic crimes that have nothing to do with terrorism. For example, it could be used to find evidence that an American citizen didn’t pay his or her taxes or committed a minor drug offense, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.
Q: How do I know if my emails or texts have been collected or searched under this law?
A: There’s no way to know unless you are charged with a crime and prosecutors disclose that they have evidence obtained through Section 702. Congress members have repeatedly asked intelligence agencies to reveal how many Americans have had their data collected under the program, but the agencies haven’t provided an answer.
Q: What happens next?
A: The Senate is likely to pass the bill and send it to Trump, who will probably sign it.
U.S. intelligence agencies collect American data in the course of monitoring foreigners.