FBI Wants Access to Internet Browser History and Other Electronic Data Without a Warrant in Terrorism and Spy Cases

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The Obama administration is seeking to amend surveillance law to give the FBI explicit authority to access a person’s Internet browser history and other electronic data without a warrant in terrorism and spy cases.

The administration made a similar effort six years ago, but dropped it after concerns were raised by privacy advocates and the tech industry.

FBI Director James B. Comey has characterized the legislation as a fix to “a typo” in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which he says has led some tech firms to refuse to provide data that Congress intended them to provide.

But tech firms and privacy advocates say the bureau is seeking an expansion of surveillance powers that infringes on Americans’ privacy.

Now, at the FBI’s request, some lawmakers are advancing legislation that would allow the bureau to obtain “electronic communication transactional records” using an administrative subpoena known as a national security letter. An NSL can be issued by the special agent in charge of a bureau field office without a judge’s approval.

Such records may include a person’s Internet protocol address and how much time a person spends on a given site. But they don’t include content, such as the text of an e-mail or Google search queries. There’s also a limit to how much visibility the bureau would have into which part of a website a person had visited. For instance, if the person went to any part of The Washington Post’s website, law enforcement would see only washingtonpost.com—nothing more specific.

Comey said that making this change to the law is the bureau’s top legislative priority this year.

The inability to obtain the data with an NSL “affects our work in a very, very big and practical way,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February.

The Senate panel recently voted out an authorization bill with the NSL amendment. The Senate Judiciary Committee this week is considering a similar provision introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) as an amendment to ECPA, a law governing domestic surveillance.

Cornyn said that what he characterized as a “scrivener’s error” in the law is “needlessly hamstringing our counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima