Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is one of the most insidious and secretive mass surveillance authorities still in operation today. The Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act would make some much-needed and long fought-for reforms, but it also does not go nearly far enough to rein in a surveillance law that the federal government has abused time and time again.

You can read the full text of the bill here.

While Section 702 was first sold as a tool necessary to stop foreign terrorists, it has since become clear that the government uses the communications it collects under this law as a domestic intelligence source. The program was intended to collect communications of people outside of the United States, but because we live in an increasingly globalized world, the government retains a massive trove of communications between people overseas on U.S. persons. Now, it’s this US side of digital conversations that are being routinely sifted through by domestic law enforcement agencies—all without a warrant.

The SAFE Act, like other reform bills introduced this Congress, attempts to roll back some of this warrantless surveillance. Despite its glaring flaws and omissions, in a Congress as dysfunctional as this one it might be the bill that best privacy-conscious people and organizations can hope for. For instance, it does not do as much as the Government Surveillance Reform Act, which EFF supported in November 2023. But imposing meaningful checks on the Intelligence Community (IC) is an urgent priority, especially because the Intelligence Community has been trying to sneak a "clean" reauthorization of Section 702 into government funding bills, and has even sought to have the renewal happen in secret in the hopes of keeping its favorite mass surveillance law intact. The administration is also reportedly planning to seek another year-long extension of the law without any congressional action. All the while, those advocating for renewing Section 702 have toyed with as many talking points as they can—from cybercrime or human trafficking to drug smuggling, terrorism, oreven solidarity activism in the United States—to see what issue would scare people sufficiently enough to allow for a clean reauthorization of mass surveillance.

So let’s break down the SAFE Act: what’s good, what’s bad, and what aspects of it might actually cause more harm in the future. 

What’s Good about the SAFE Act

The SAFE Act would do at least two things that reform advocates have pressured Congress to include in any proposed bill to reauthorize Section 702. This speaks to the growing consensus that some reforms are absolutely necessary if this power is to remain operational.

The first and most important reform the bill would make is to require the government to obtain a warrant before accessing the content of communications for people in the United States. Currently, relying on Section 702, the government vacuums up communications from all over the world, and a huge number of those intercepted communications are to or from US persons. Those communications sit in a massive database. Both intelligence agencies and law enforcement have conducted millions of queries of this database for US-based communications—all without a warrant—in order to investigate both national security concerns and run-of-the-mill criminal investigations. The SAFE Act would prohibit “warrantless access to the communications and other information of United States persons and persons located in the United States.” While this is the bare minimum a reform bill should do, it’s an important step. It is crucial to note, however, that this does not stop the IC or law enforcement from querying to see if the government has collected communications from specific individuals under Section 702—it merely stops them from reading those communications without a warrant.

The second major reform the SAFE Act provides is to close the “data brooker loophole,” which EFF has been calling attention to for years. As one example, mobile apps often collect user data to sell it to advertisers on the open market. The problem is law enforcement and intelligence agencies increasingly buy this private user data, rather than obtain a warrant for it. This bill would largely prohibit the government from purchasing personal data they would otherwise need a warrant to collect. This provision does include a potentially significant exception for situations where the government cannot exclude Americans’ data from larger “compilations” that include foreigners’ data. This speaks not only to the unfair bifurcation of rights between Americans and everyone else under much of our surveillance law, but also to the risks of allowing any large scale acquisition from data brokers at all. The SAFE Act would require the government to minimize collection, search, and use of any Americans’ data in these compilations, but it remains to be seen how effective these prohibitions will be. 

What’s Missing from the SAFE Act

The SAFE Act is missing a number of important reforms that we’ve called for—and which the Government Surveillance Reform Act would have addressed. These reforms include ensuring that individuals harmed by warrantless surveillance are able to challenge it in court, both in civil lawsuits like those brought by EFF in the past, and in criminal cases where the government may seek to shield its use of Section 702 from defendants. After nearly 14 years of Section 702 and countless court rulings slamming the courthouse door on such legal challenges, it’s well past time to ensure that those harmed by Section 702 surveillance can have the opportunity to challenge it.

New Problems Potentially Created by the SAFE Act

While there may often be good reason to protect the secrecy of FISA proceedings, unofficial disclosures about these proceedings has from the very beginning played an indispensable role in reforming uncontested abuses of surveillance authorities. From the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program through the Snowden disclosures up to the present, when reporting about FISA applications appears on the front page of the New York Times, oversight of the intelligence community would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, without these disclosures.

Unfortunately, the SAFE Act contains at least one truly nasty addition to current law: an entirely new crime that makes it a felony to disclose “the existence of an application” for foreign intelligence surveillance or any of the application’s contents. In addition to explicitly adding to the existing penalties in the Espionage Act—itself highly controversial— this new provision seems aimed at discouraging leaks by increasing the potential sentence to eight years in prison. There is no requirement that prosecutors show that the disclosure harmed national security, nor any consideration of the public interest. Under the present climate, there’s simply no reason to give prosecutors even more tools like this one to punish whistleblowers who are seen as going through improper channels.

EFF always aims to tell it like it is. This bill has some real improvements, but it’s nowhere near the surveillance reform we all deserve. On the other hand, the IC and its allies in Congress continue to have significant leverage to push fake reform bills, so the SAFE Act may well be the best we’re going to get. Either way, we’re not giving up the fight.  

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