A new bill in Congress would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants before targeting U.S. residents in searches of electronic communications collected by the National Security Agency.
The End Warrantless Surveillance of Americans Act, introduced Tuesday by three members of the House of Representatives, would end the so-called surveillance back door that allows the FBI and other agencies to search U.S. emails, texts and other data swept up in NSA surveillance of overseas communications.
Under current law, if the NSA collects U.S. communications by mistake when targeting the electronic communications of terrorism suspects, the FBI is allowed to search for those domestic records in NSA databases without a court-ordered warrant. The so-called loophole in Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches gives the FBI access to the content of "tens of thousands" of emails and other communications, according to Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and cosponsor of the new bill.
"If Congress truly wants to end bulk collections of U.S. persons data, then we must also look at the warrantless surveillance" in this NSA program, Lofgren said in a statement. "Failing to do so all but ensures the nation's spy agencies will continue to violate Americans' privacy and the Fourth Amendment."
The bill would also forbid government agencies from mandating or requesting tech companies to build back doors into their devices or software that allow surveillance agencies access to communications. In recent months, FBI Director James Comey and other officials in President Barack Obama's administration have called for mobile phone companies to build back doors into encrypted services on devices.
"Right now ... the government is allowed to snoop and spy on the content of a citizen's phone calls, texts and emails -- all without a warrant," Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and bill cosponsor, said in a statement. "Failure to address this gaping loophole ... leaves the constitutional rights of millions of Americans vulnerable and unprotected."
The bill mirrors an amendment that the sponsors tried to add to the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end an NSA program that collects U.S. phone records in bulk, but that is separate from the NSA's overseas surveillance of email and other electronic communications.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the USA Freedom Act last week, but voted down the amendment. Republican leaders of the House had promised to kill the phone records bill if the language from the End Warrantless Surveillance of Americans Act was added, committee leaders said.
Last June, the House also voted 293-123 to approve a similar amendment in a Department of Defense funding bill, but the amendment was stripped out before final approval.
Representatives of the NSA and FBI didn't immediately respond to requests for comments on the End Warrantless Surveillance of Americans Act.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is email@example.com.