Senate Should Hold Hearings on Expanded Use of National Security Letters by FBI

Thirty civil society organizations and trade associations, including TCP, are calling on Senate leaders to hold public hearings on a proposal to expand the FBI’s power to collect sensitive online communications without a court order prior to bringing it back up for a vote.

The legislative proposal would allow the FBI to use a National Security Letter, or NSL, to require a service provider to turn over information on Americans’ web browsing history; logs of who individuals communicate with online via email, chat, video, and text; what services they subscribe to; what times they sign into and out of their accounts; IP addresses; and much more.

“This proposal, if enacted, would remove necessary judicial oversight of the FBI’s access to these personal records and would threaten individuals’ privacy,” the group wrote in July 11 letter to Senator Charles Grassley (R-Ind.) and Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

A National Security Letter can be issued by FBI agents in field offices without any judicial oversight.  NSLs are routinely accompanied by a “gag order” to prevent the service provider from notifying a user that the FBI had compelled disclosure of the information.

Last month, Senate leadership tried – and failed – to attach an amendment expanding the use of NSLs to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (H.R. 2578).  The vote was 58 to 38 in favor of proceeding to debate on the amendment, but Senate rules required 60 votes for passage.

“Before voting on this amendment again, Senators should have the opportunity to, in a public setting, ask questions that are necessary to understanding the nature of the problem that the FBI purports exists with its current authorities and the impacts of the proposed expansion,” the groups wrote.

In addition to TCP, other groups joining the letter include American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association, Center for Democracy & Technology, Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), FreedomWorks, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Restore the Fourth, R Street and TechFreedom.

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