Google, Facebook, Yahoo, rights groups oppose FBI expansion of surveillance powers

Proposed rules would give government access even to browser history and email metadata

Google, Facebook, Yahoo and industry and civil rights groups have opposed legislation that would extend the categories of Internet records that the U.S. government can collect without court approval through administrative orders known as National Security Letters.

The companies and groups have pointed out in a letter to senators that the new provisions would expand the types of records, known as Electronic Communication Transactional Records (ECTRs), which the Federal Bureau of Investigation can obtain using the NSLs.

The ECTRs would include a variety of online information, such as IP addresses, routing and transmission information, session data, a person's browsing history, email metadata, location information, and the exact date and time a person signs in or out of a particular online account.

“The new categories of information that could be collected using an NSL and thus without any oversight from a judge would paint an incredibly intimate picture of an individual's life,” according to the letter on Monday.

The companies and groups are opposed to two pieces of legislation that are being considered by U.S. federal lawmakers. One of these is the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act that is said to "include provisions to expand warrantless government surveillance and takes aim at a valuable independent oversight board," according to Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, who last month voted against the bill in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The bill would allow any FBI field office to demand email records without a court order, besides narrowing the jurisdiction of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, Wyden said in a statement. Under current rules, the FBI can obtain phone records with a NSL, but not the email records.

The other legislation opposed by the groups is a proposed amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act by Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.

Current rules limit the information that the government can seek using the NSL to the “name, address, and length of service of a person or entity,” in certain investigations, but the amendment would extend the list of details required to be provided by service providers to include other information such as account number, login history, and card or bank account information.

This expansion of the NSL statute has been described by some government officials as merely fixing a “typo” in the law, according to the letter, which refers to Senate testimony by FBI Director James Comey.

The information that could be collected under the expansion of powers “could reveal details about a person’s political affiliation, medical conditions, religion, substance abuse history, sexual orientation, and, in spite of the exclusion of cell tower information in the Cornyn amendment, even his or her movements throughout the day.” according to the letter.

Reform Government Surveillance, which is backed by a number of tech companies, is a signatory to the letter as also the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The groups are concerned with the expansion of the scope of NSLs because the government already uses them to a great extent, most often accompanied by gag orders prohibiting companies from making public that they have received such requests. Over 300,000 NSLs were issued by the FBI over the last ten years, according to the letter.

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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