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US Senate to Vote on a Wiretap Bill That Critics Call ‘Stasi-Like’

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses proposed legislation in the United States Senate, known as the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act (RISAA), which could significantly expand the government's ability to force businesses to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant. The article outlines the concerns raised by legal experts about the potential expansion of the government's surveillance powers under this legislation.

🙋 Q&A

[01] The Section 702 program and RISAA legislation

1. What is the Section 702 program and how does it work?

  • The Section 702 program, authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), was established over a decade ago to allow the government to force major telecommunications companies to eavesdrop on overseas calls.
  • The program compels the cooperation of US businesses defined as "electronic communications service providers" (ECSP), such as phone and email providers like AT&T and Google.
  • The government claims the program is designed to target foreign citizens abroad, but it has also been used to access wiretaps of Americans' emails and phone conversations.

2. What are the key concerns about the RISAA legislation?

  • The RISAA legislation would expand the definition of "electronic communications service provider" (ECSP) to include data centers, commercial landlords, and other businesses that merely have access to communications equipment.
  • Legal experts argue this would force a wider range of businesses, including delivery personnel, cleaning contractors, and utility providers, to secretly eavesdrop on Americans' communications on behalf of the government.
  • Critics have compared this to the tactics of the East German secret police (Stasi) and have dubbed it the "Make Everyone A Spy provision."

3. How does the RISAA legislation relate to the Section 702 program?

  • The RISAA legislation is aimed at expanding the government's ability to force businesses to cooperate with the Section 702 surveillance program, which allows the government to eavesdrop on overseas communications.
  • By broadening the definition of "electronic communications service provider," the RISAA bill would enable the government to compel a wider range of businesses to assist with the Section 702 program's surveillance activities.

[02] Reactions and Implications

1. How have lawmakers and experts responded to the RISAA legislation?

  • Some legal experts, including those who have appeared before the secret FISA court, have strongly criticized the RISAA bill, arguing it represents a dramatic expansion of government surveillance powers.
  • Privacy advocates have lobbied senators to vote against the RISAA bill, warning that it would expose a wide range of Americans, including cleaning crews and security guards, to secret surveillance directives.
  • However, a Democratic congressman has dismissed comparisons to the East German Stasi, claiming critics are "massively exaggerating" the domestic reach of the 702 program.

2. What is the status of the RISAA legislation and its potential passage?

  • The Senate is expected to vote on the RISAA bill this week, though it faces some procedural hurdles to reach the floor.
  • A two-thirds majority vote is required to get the bill to the floor, and another two-thirds majority is needed to prevent a filibuster by privacy defenders.
  • If these hurdles are cleared, the bill only requires a simple majority to pass and be sent to President Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.

3. What are the broader implications of the RISAA legislation and the Section 702 program?

  • Critics argue the RISAA bill represents "one of the most dramatic and terrifying expansions of government surveillance authority in history."
  • The Section 702 program has been criticized for enabling widespread surveillance of Americans' communications, with revelations of abuse by the FBI in targeting protesters, journalists, and even a member of Congress.
  • While the government claims the program is essential for national security, privacy advocates argue that relying on the FBI to police itself is a mistake given the agency's history of surveillance abuses.
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