Senate narrowly rejects plan to require a warrant for Americans’ browsing data

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Senators have narrowly rejected a bipartisan amendment that would have required the government first obtain a warrant before accessing Americans’ web browsing data.

The amendment brought by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) — just seven lines in length — would have forced the government to first establish probable cause — or reasonable suspicion of a crime — to obtain the warrant. That’s a far higher bar than what’s required under existing law, which under the Patriot Act permits the bulk collection of Americans’ browsing records.

But the amendment fell short by one vote of the required 60 votes to pass the chamber.

Four senators did not vote on the amendment: Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is in self-isolation after a staffer tested positive; Ben Sasse (R-NE); Patty Murray (D-WA); and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Spokespeople for the absent senators did not immediately comment on why they did not vote.

The bill took aim at Section 215, a controversial law in the Patriot Act, which was signed into law in response to and a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The law allows the government to collect any “tangible thing” from libraries and other businesses — so long as it’s relevant to a national security inquiry.

But it was only after the Edward Snowden disclosures in 2013 onwards that the vast scope of the program was first revealed. The government had a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act that allowed it to collect call logs and internet browsing records directly from the internet and telecom giants. Jim Sensenbrenner, who authored the Patriot Act, expressed shock at how his legislation was used to spy on Americans and became a vocal advocate in pushing through reforms.

As Wyden explained in his speech to the Senate prior to the vote:

Right now, the government can collect web browsing and internet search history without a warrant under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Section 215 is the most controversial and dangerous provision of [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]. That’s because it is so vague and so broad. Under Section 215, the government can collect just about anything so long as it is relevant to an investigation. This can include the private records of innocent, law-abiding Americans. They don’t have to have done anything wrong. They don’t have to be suspected of anything. They don’t even have to have been in contact with anyone suspected of anything. Their personal information just has to be “relevant.”

Wyden and Daines’ failed amendment is just one of several proposed reforms to the U.S. government’s surveillance powers, some of which — including Section 215 — expired in March. The Senate is expected to vote on a final bill later this week.

Assuming none of the amendments pass, the final bill is likely to skip the House — which passed its version of the bill earlier this year — and await the president’s signature.