TechnologyA Civil Rights Firestorm Erupts Around a Looming Surveillance...

A Civil Rights Firestorm Erupts Around a Looming Surveillance Power Grab

United States lawmakers are receiving a flood of warnings from across civil society not to be bend to the efforts by some members of Congress to derail a highly sought debate over the future of a powerful but polarizing US surveillance program.

House and Senate party leaders are preparing to unveil legislation on Wednesday directing the spending priorities of the US military and its $831 billion budget next year. Rumors, meanwhile, have been circulating on Capitol Hill about plans reportedly hatched by House speaker Mike Johnson to amend the bill in an effort to extend Section 702, a sweeping surveillance program drawing fire from a large contingent of Democratic and Republican lawmakers favoring privacy reforms.

WIRED first reported on the rumors on Monday, citing senior congressional aides familiar with ongoing negotiations over the bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), separate versions of which were passed by the House and Senate this summer.

More than 80 civil rights and grassroots organizations—including Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, Color of Change, Muslims for Just Futures, Stop AAPI Hate, and United We Dream—signed a statement this morning opposing “any efforts” to extend the 702 program using the NDAA. The statement, expected to hit the inboxes of all 535 members of Congress this afternoon, says that failure to reform contentious aspects of the program, such as federal agents’ ability to access Americans’ communications without a warrant, poses an “alarming threat to civil rights,” and that any attempt to use must-pass legislation to extend the program would “sell out the communities that have been most often wrongfully targeted by these agencies and warrantless spying powers generally.”

“As you’re aware, this extremely controversial warrantless surveillance authority is set to expire at the end of the year, but will continue to operate as it does currently until April, as government officials have recognized for many years,” the groups say.

Johnson and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. Leadership of the House and Senate armed services committees likewise did not respond.

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes the US government, namely, the US National Security Agency, to surveil the communications of foreign citizens believed to be overseas. Oftentimes, these communications—texts, calls, emails, and other web traffic—“incidentally” involve Americans, whom the government is forbidden from directly targeting. But certain methods of interception, those that tap directly into the internet’s backbone, may make it impossible to fully disentangle foreign communications from domestic ones.

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