The US House of Representatives approved a controversial amendment to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that would effectively expand the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. The bill was passed by a split vote of 256 to 164: 191 Republicans and 65 Democrats voted for the measure and 119 Democrats and 45 Republicans voted against it.
Prior to the final vote, an amendment that would require intelligence agencies to get warrants before searching the communications of Americans gathered through the act was voted on. It was rejected by a vote of 233 to 183.
Created in 2008, FISA allows for the warrantless surveillance of any foreign person that an intelligence agency deems a target. Intelligence agencies have abused this power to also surveil American citizens as a result of two loopholes known as “backdoor search” and “about collection.”
Backdoor search is a roundabout way of monitoring Americans’ electronic communications. It allows intelligence agencies to peer into the communications of any American who has communicated with a foreign target. About collection, on the other hand, allowed intelligence agencies to monitor the communications of any American who even mentions information about a foreign target in electronic communications. So if an American includes the email address, phone number or other information about a foreign target in a communication to another American, their communications would be subject to surveillance even if that person wasn’t in contact with the actual target.
After about collection came under scrutiny by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the NSA voluntarily abandoned the practice in 2017. The amendment just passed by the House of Representatives reverses the NSA’s decision and would codify the practice as law.
An amendment similar to the one passed by the House today has been drafted by the Senate Intelligence Committee. FISA is set to expire on January 19, meaning the Senate will likely vote on the bill in the next week.