The FBI hopes to amend surveillance laws as early as this year, giving the agency explicit authority to access a personal Internet browser history by simply issuing an administrative “national security letter,” the Washington Post reports.
The new legislation being readied would empower the FBI to obtain “electronic communication transactional records” bypassing judges’ approval with the help of a “national security letter” (NSL) which could be issued by the special agent in charge of a bureau field office, the paper says.
The FBI chief made a specific point that gaining this access through changing legislation is topping agency’s priorities for the year 2016, since the inability to get the necessary data “affects our work in a very, very big and practical way,” James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February.
The Obama administration already tried to adopt a similar amendment some six years ago, but had to retreat after fierce opposition from the IT industry and privacy advocates.
Incidentally, Comey believes the current state of things is thanks to a “scrivener’s error” in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, enabling internet providers and other technical companies to refuse providing certain personal information to the agency, citing infringement of American citizens’ privacy.
The ECPA is “needlessly hamstringing our counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts,” Comey stressed.
The FBI also insists that a broader update of the ECPA should set electronic communication transactional records equal to telephone billing records.
The personal web ‘transactional records’ in question will allegedly include protocol addresses and the exact time a person spends on a web resource, but not content like search queries and email texts.
A coalition of privacy and civil society groups united with internet industry organizations to oppose the legal initiative, warning that the amendment would “dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about users’ online activities without oversight.”
Security letters requesting data usually come with a gag order forbidding the internet providers from making the fact of the FBI request public.
The FBI has issued over 300,000 such requests within the past 10 years and in most cases they were accompanied by gag orders, estimated American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani.
“That’s the perfect storm of more information gathered, less transparency and no accountability,” Guliani said.