Last week, the U.S. Senate voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, the sweeping surveillance law that infamously expanded the U.S. security state in the aftermath of 9/11.
The vote came after a failed bipartisan effort to change the law to explicitly forbid federal agencies from collecting Americans’ web browsing history without a warrant. The amendment, introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steven Daines (R-MT), failed by just one vote on the Senate floor, with several senators notably absent.
Now, activists are trying to push Democrats to add the privacy protections back into the bill when it returns to the House this week, preventing the Trump administration from gaining more internet surveillance powers in the middle of a global pandemic.
“House Democrats literally impeached Trump and have spent the last two years shouting about how this dangerous administration routinely abuses power. Now they have a chance to put even just a tiny limitation on Trump’s surveillance authorities,” said Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight For The Future. “If they don’t take it, they’re making it clear The Resistance has always been bullshit.”
Privacy advocates have launched a campaign calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—who impeached Donald Trump and called him “the most dangerous person in the history of our country”—to reintroduce the privacy amendment, which has enough support to pass in both chambers of Congress. More than 50 groups have signed on in support, including Human Rights Watch, the NAACP, and the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo.
“This is an incredibly rare opportunity,” Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel for Demand Progress, told Motherboard. “It is now exclusively Speaker Pelosi’s decision whether Bill Barr and Donald Trump can spy on Americans’ online activity without a warrant.”
The fight in Congress this week over the Patriot Act will be critical. Although the Wyden-Daines amendment failed in the Senate by just one vote, the fact that several senators who would have voted yes were absent proves that the measure has enough support to pass the upper chamber. All it would take is for Pelosi to include the privacy-preserving amendment in the House version, allowing the Senate to vote again and pass the measure with full attendance.
“Search and web browsing history provide a window into some of the most sensitive aspects of our lives—revealing everything from political views to potential medical conditions,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, in a statement sent to Motherboard. “The Senate vote shows there is overwhelming support for this important reform, which House leadership should include in the Senate-passed version of the bill."
Democratic leaders have been criticized for handing vast surveillance powers to the federal government while simultaneously warning that the Trump administration routinely abuses those powers to target vulnerable people. In early 2017, members of both parties voted to reauthorize another surveillance authority, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), extending domestic spying powers into the Trump era.
Since then, the Trump administration has consistently used its surveillance powers to target immigrants and other vulnerable groups, contracting data mining companies like Palantir to track, detain, and confine thousands of migrants in tightly-packed detention centers.
“While surveillance in the U.S. has always focused on people of color and protesters, Trump has proven to be a unique threat to the most vulnerable communities, and this is a crucial step to check these dangerous powers,” Sandy Fulton, a government relations director at Free Press, told Motherboard. “At a moment in history when we need Congress to be vigilant, there’s no excuse for failing to protect our rights and privacy.”
This article was updated with a statement from the ACLU.