Earlier this week, both the House Committee on the Judiciary (HJC) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) marked up two very different bills (H.R. 6570 - Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act in HJC, and HR 6611, the FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2023 in HPSCI), both of which would reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)—but in very different ways. Both bills head to the House floor next week under a procedural rule called “Queen of the Hill,” where the bill with the most votes gets sent to the Senate for consideration. 

While renewing any surveillance authority remains a complicated and complex issue, this choice is clear - we urge all Members to vote NO on the Intelligence Committee’s bill, H.R.6611, the FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2023.

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On Nov. 16, HPSCI released a report calling for reauthorization of Section 702 with essentially superficial reforms. The bill that followed, H.R. 6611, was as bad as expected. It would renew the mass surveillance authority Section 702 for another eight years. It would create new authorities that the intelligence community has sought for years, but that have been denied by the courts. It would continue the indiscriminate collection of U.S. persons’ communications when they talk with people abroad for use by domestic law enforcement. This was not the intention of this national security program, and people on U.S. soil should not have their communications collected without a warrant because of a loophole.

As a reminder, Section 702 was designed to allow the government to warrantlessly surveil non-U.S. citizens abroad for foreign intelligence purposes. Increasingly, it’s this U.S. side of digital conversations that domestic law enforcement agencies trawl through—all without a warrant. FBI agents have been using the Section 702 databases to conduct millions of invasive searches for Americans’ communications, including those of protesters, racial justice activists, 19,000 donors to a congressional campaign, journalists, and even members of Congress

Additionally, the HPSCI bill authorizes the use of this unaccountable and out-of-control mass surveillance program as a new way of vetting asylum seekers by sifting through their digital communications. According to a newly released Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinion, the government has sought some version of this authority for years, but was repeatedly denied it, only receiving court approval for the first time this year. Because the court opinion is so heavily redacted, it is impossible to know the current scope of immigration- and visa-related querying, or what broader proposal the intelligence agencies originally sought. 

This new authority proposes to give immigration services the ability to audit entire communication histories before deciding whether an immigrant can enter the country. This is a particularly problematic situation that could cost someone entrance to the United States based on, for instance, their own or a friend’s political opinions—as happened to a Palestinian Harvard student when his social media account was reviewed when coming to the U.S. to start his semester.

The HPSCI bill also includes a call “to define Electronic Communication Service Provider to include equipment.” Earlier this year, the FISA Court of Review released a highly redacted opinion documenting a fight over the government's attempt to subject an unknown company to Section 702 surveillance. However, the court agreed that under the circumstances the company did not qualify as an "electronic communication service provider" under the law. Now, the HPSCI bill would expand that definition to include a much broader range of providers, including those who merely provide hardware through which people communicate on the Internet. Even without knowing the details of the secret court fight, this represents an ominous expansion of 702's scope, which the committee introduced without any explanation or debate of its necessity. 

By contrast, the House Judiciary Committee bill, H.R. 6570, the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act, would actually address a major problem with Section 702 by banning warrantless backdoor searches of Section 702 databases for Americans’ communications. This bill would also prohibit law enforcement from purchasing Americans’ data that they would otherwise need a warrant to obtain, a practice that circumvents core constitutional protections. Importantly, this bill would also renew this authority for only three more years, giving Congress another opportunity to revisit how the reforms are implemented and to make further changes if the government is still abusing the program.

EFF has long fought for significant changes to Section 702. By the government’s own numbers, violations are still occurring at a rate of more than 4,000 per year. Our government, with the FBI in the lead, has come to treat Section 702—enacted by Congress for the surveillance of foreigners on foreign soil —as a domestic surveillance program of Americans. This simply cannot be allowed to continue. While we will continue to push for further reforms to Section 702, we urge all members to reject the HPSCI bill.

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