Senate rejects tougher standards for collection of search and browsing data


The US Senate voted Wednesday on an amendment to require government investigators to show probable cause when requesting web browsing data in counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations.

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The US Senate voted down amendment to the USA Patriot Act Wednesday that would create a tougher standard for government investigators to collect the web search and browsing histories of people in the US. The bipartisan amendment, proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, would require the US Department of Justice to show probable cause when requesting approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect the data for counterterrorism or counterintelligence investigations.

Before the vote, Daines, a Republican, told the Senate the bill was necessary to keep the government from intruding into the most sensitive information of internet users in the US. “If you want to see an American’s search history, then you better go to a judge and get a warrant,” he said.

The amendment, which required 60 votes to pass and failed with a final tally of 59 ayes and 37 nays, is one of several slated to be considered Wednesday to amend the Patriot Act. A separate amendment drafted by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell would expressly allow the collection of web search and browsing data under section 215 of the Patriot Act, which does not require that investigators show probable cause. The Wyden-Daines amendment, by contrast, would have given government the ability to request the data under a separate part of the law, Title I, which does require probable cause.

The vote comes more than a month after three sections of the USA Patriot Act expired in March. Section 215 allows the government to collect of data that is “relevant” to counterterrorism or counterintelligence investigations, with approval of the FISA court. Also under consideration Wednesday is a bipartisan amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Mike Lee of Arizona that would strengthen requirements for review of government requests for violations of constitutional privacy rights. Another amendment from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky that would limit the use of data collected through the Patriot Act as evidence in criminal cases or lawsuits that are outside the jurisdiction of the FISA Court.

In addition to his amendment permitting the collection of browsing and search history without probable cause, McConnell drafted an amendment that would limit the use of Patriot Act powers for investigating candidates for federal office. The amendment comes as Pres. Donald Trump and members of his administration have criticized FBI investigations into members of his campaign team using Patriot Act powers.

McConnell didn’t address the Senate regarding the Wyden-Daines amendment, and his office didn’t respond to a request for comment on his drafted amendments.

Wyden, a Democrat, said his amendment was especially important now that millions of Americans are at home to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, relying on the internet to work, educate their children and access information.

“Stand up for those millions of people who have to be at home,” Wyden said.

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