The US Senate has voted to allow law enforcement agencies to access web browsing data without a warrant as part of a Patriot Act reauthorization vote.
The move was led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell as part of a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which gives federal agencies broad domestic surveillance powers. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) attempted to remove the powers from the bill with a bipartisan amendment.
But in a shock upset, the privacy-preserving amendment fell short by a single vote after several senators who would have voted “Yes” failed to show up to the session, including Bernie Sanders. Nine Democratic senators also voted “No,” causing the amendment to fall short of the 60-vote threshold it needed to pass.
“The Patriot Act should be repealed in its entirety, set on fire and buried in the ground,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “It’s one of the worst laws passed in the last century, and there is zero evidence that the mass surveillance programs it enables have ever saved a single human life.”
The vote comes at a time when internet usage has skyrocketed, with tens of millions of Americans quarantined at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Privacy advocates have warned for over a decade that allowing warrantless access to web search queries and browsing history allows law enforcement to easily crack down on activists, labor organizers, or anyone else the government deems a threat. The reauthorization vote does not expand the powers of the Patriot Act, but voting down the amendment is a vote to maintain a status quo surveillance state that has used its powers spy on underrepresented communities. The House must still vote on reauthorization.
“Today the Senate made clear that the purpose of the PATRIOT Act is to spy on Americans, no warrants or due process necessary,” Dayton Young, director of product at Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “Any lawmaker who votes to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act is voting against our constitutionally-protected freedoms, and there’s nothing patriotic about that.”