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  • An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer, in an office in Warsaw June 24, 2013.

    An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer, in an office in Warsaw June 24, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 June 2016

Dozens of organizations signed a letter warning the amendment “would paint an incredibly intimate picture of an individual’s life.”

An unlikely aliance that includes the ACLU, the Arab American Institute, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and 32 other civil liberty organizations, are uniting against a proposal by U.S. Congress to allow intelligence to access Internet browsing history without a warrant.

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The coalition signed a letter on Monday telling senators that the reform “would paint an incredibly intimate picture of an individual’s life” including “a person's political affiliation, medical conditions, religion, substance abuse history, sexual orientation, and, in spite of the exclusion of cell tower information in the (Senator John) Cornyn amendment, even his or her movements throughout the day."

Cornyn introduced the amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which includes mass surveillance programs like the PATRIOT Act, PRISM and Upstream, arguing that current law is “needlessly hamstringing our counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts.” The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is in the process of updating the domestic surveillance act, will review the proposal on Thursday.

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The expanded powers would not just be used to combat terrorism — though a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in February mostly focused on the Islamic State group and other threats like Russia and North Korea — but would also be used in local law enforcement, said FBI Director James Comey in the hearing. Not enacting the amendment would mean “a really bad guy will go free,” he said.

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Comey also called the amendment a fix to “a typo” in the ECPA, which would add "electronic communication transactional records" to an already exhaustive list of items that the FBI can access without a warrant. The letter urges senators to allow an amendment that authorizes Internet spying to expire in 2017 rather than renew and buffer it with the reform.

The group created a website “End 702” with a countdown to the expiration of amendment 702, which was passed in 2008, but whose powers Congress was not aware of until Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s abuses in 2013.

When the Judiciary Committee asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper how many citizens were targeted by the law, he said he was still developing a way of estimating.

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The letter said that the FBI has issued more than 300,000 subpoenas in the past 10 years, 97 percent of which had gag orders. The proposal would also include non-disclosure and confidentiality requirements.

After the amendment failed in 2010, the current one is a legislative priority for the FBI this year, said Comey. He insisted that the initiative does not impinge on privacy, since it would only collect metadata, such as internet protocol addresses and the amount of time a person spends on a website.
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