House to Vote on Amendment Reinstating Intrusive Spying Tactics

System Security Specialist Working at System Control Center. Room is Full of Screens Displaying Various Information.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote today on a measure that would reinstate section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a piece of legislation allowing the NSA warrantless foreign surveillance. The new amendment would expand the NSA’s purview to include American citizens loosely associated with foreign targets.

The latest iteration is a modification to the contentious bill that proponents tried to push through the House last month. The amendment has been touted as a reform measure, but in reality it would reinstate a practice the NSA discontinued due to its intrusive nature that was deemed to be illegal by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC.

A vote on the bill failed to pass last month, though its proponents from the House Intelligence Committee have modified it for another vote. So, what kind of invasive measures would this bill allow the NSA to conduct?

Section 702 allows the intelligence community to conduct surveillance on any foreigner outside the U.S. that an agency deems to be a concern, without requiring a warrant. This may seem like an obvious practice for an intelligence agency, until the NSA began using it to spy on American citizens.


Thanks to Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the government’s domestic spying habits, the NSA was exposed for its PRISM and Upstream methods of surveillance, in which any type of broad association with a target can be used for surveillance on American citizens. So broad, that even any mention of something related to foreign affairs related to a target could be used as justification.

This type of surveillance is called “abouts” or “about collection” and it allows the NSA to tap into fiber optics cables or demand user data from major tech companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. Once these companies divulge personal communications, they are then forbidden from telling their customers they gave private information to a government agency.

Though it has been less than five years since Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s clandestine surveillance tactics, the intelligence community has attempted to adopt or continue methods that have been deemed invasive or unconstitutional.

The FBI was exposed for its use of stingrays, or fake cell phone towers used to conduct surveillance on unwitting targets police determine to be potential suspects. The towers send out signals to trick cell phones into pinging them, allowing police to pinpoint a target’s location or surveil calls and text messaging.

This type of activity by the intelligence community comes at a time when technological advents are becoming more and more invasive, collecting increasing amounts of personal data. Apple’s recent retina scan technology to unlock cell phones has many worried the technology could be used to identify individuals and unlock their phones without consent.

According to Apple it doesn’t collect or store facial ID data from consumers’ phones, however the government could easily force its hand to do so. Already half of all Americans are involved in an unregulated FBI facial recognition program that uses computer algorithms to scan through millions of faces for law enforcement purposes. Little is known about this program and the extent of its invasiveness.

Though public attention piqued in 2013, when Snowden revealed the nature of these programs, it seems the government is continuing with business as usual, now that the anti-Orwellian zeitgeist has died down. What can we do to stop this?

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