The US Senate had a chance yesterday to protect your online privacy, and you’ll never guess what happened. Okay, maybe you will. They didn’t do it. The effort to rein in government powers granted by the Patriot Act fell short by a single vote, 59 to 37. Even though most senators agreed with the move, the upper chamber lacked the 60 votes necessary to overcome the filibuster. Four senators, including several who supported the measure, were not present to get it over the top.
The US famously passed the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, granting sweeping powers to law enforcement to collect data on Americans. Congress has been wrestling with reauthorizing the Patriot Act over the last few months, and many elected officials have been pushing for limits in Section 215. That’s the part of the Patriot Act that allows the government to request access to data via secret tribunals authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The Senate was set to authorize an amendment that would have forbidden the government from collecting your browsing history via FISA courts. Instead, it would need a warrant. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republicans were opposed to any amendments that would weaken the Patriot Act, but in the end, 24 Republicans broke ranks to vote in favor of the amendment. All but 10 Democrats also voted in favor. However, that wasn’t enough to reach the 60-vote threshold.
Senators Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray, Ben Sasse, and Bernie Sanders were all absent. Sasse and Alexander are Republicans, but Democrats Murray and Sanders were confirmed “yes” votes. Murray’s office claims she was still flying back to Washington DC when the vote happened. Sanders’ camp has not responded to requests for comment.
The likely reauthorization without any amendments will be a major setback for privacy advocates. FISA courts have long been abused to gather data on millions of Americans. Congress made a half-hearted effort to increase oversight with the 2015 USA Freedom Act, a response to the outcry over Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents. However, the Justice Department’s inspector general has warned FISA courts are still operating basically unhindered, and the Freedom Act has expired.
Warrantless collection of online browsing data will most likely continue under the reauthorized Patriot Act. Your best bet to maintain some semblance of privacy is to ensure you’re always using SSL-enabled websites. You might also want to consider a trustworthy VPN to obscure your activities.
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