“Privacy-minded senators on Wednesday blocked an amendment that would give the FBI power to take internet records, including browser histories and email metadata, without a court order,” U.S. News reports.
The legislation was Senate amendment 4787 to HR 2578, introduced by Senator John McCain. It got majority support among the Senators, but failed cloture by a vote. The final tally was 58 to 38 with 4 Senators not voting.
Opponents of the legislation are afraid that, should this amendment come to another cloture vote, the non-voting Senators may give the amendment’s supporters a victory:
Critics of the propsed expasion of the FBI’s ability to demand records with national security letters, or NSLs, are urging opponents to flood their senators with calls. There were some unexpected “yes” votes, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who they hope to flip as some of the four senators who did not vote are viewed as tougher sells.
As you can see from the vote tally both of North Dakota’s Senators – Republican John Hoeven and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp – voted for the amendment. Here’s what they were voting to allow:
The amendment would allow the FBI to use national security letters to force companies to turn over “electronic communications transactional records,” sometimes referred to as an ECTR, when it claims they are relevant to an investigation into terrorism or espionage. NSLs are administrative subpoenas that don’t require court approval and often come with a gag order.
Critics say the FBI already can get ECTR records if it convinces a judge there’s good cause or if there’s an emergency and it seeks retroactive court review.
An ECTR – or Electronic Communications Transational Record – is information that can include “logs of emails you send and receive, cell site data (including your location information), and lists of websites you visit.” We are talking about some very personal information.
According to the article, it can currently take authorities about a month to get a warrant from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, though time seems to be about the only obstacle for getting a warrant. That court rarely turns down a warrant request. As of 2013 it had rejected just 11 of the more than 33,900 warrant requests made by the government over the course of years.
The courts already seem to be rubber stamping these warrants. Now the feds want to go around even the rubber stamp. And North Dakota’s Senators are trying to help them.