A heartbreaker of a vote just went down in the U.S. Senate with disturbing implications for online privacy.
On Wednesday, the Senate failed to pass an amendment to parts of the Patriot Act that would explicitly prevent law enforcement from using it to justify collecting individuals’ internet browser and search history without a warrant.
The failure of the amendment means your searches and the URLs you look at could be swept up in the same sort of warrantless mass surveillance that Edward Snowden exposed in 2013, although back then it involved telephone metadata.
The most crushing part? It failed by just one vote.
The amendment required 60 votes to pass, and got 59, including votes from 24 Republicans. However, 10 Democrats voted against the amendment, dooming it and some internet freedoms to the congressional trash bin.
Some internet privacy advocates are encouraged by the fact that 59 senators sought to protect our privacy, but stymied by why the 10 Democrats sided with Sen. Mitch McConnell.
“The 10 Democrats who voted no on the amendment is inexplicable and frankly indefensible,” Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel for Demand Progress, a progressive internet freedoms organization, told Mashable.
“Ten democrats just voted to let Bill Barr and Donald Trump access internet browsing and search history without a warrant.”
“Ten democrats just voted to let Bill Barr and Donald Trump access internet browsing and search history without a warrant,” he said. “What else is there to say? There can be no explanation for why they voted this way, except for cynical political reasons.”
Usually progressive Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Sheldon Whitehouse were among the 10 Democrats who voted Nay. Sen. Bernie Sanders was not present for the vote.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the sponsor of the amendment, tweeted a similar sentiment about how close the vote was — and the gravity of the consequences.
Fifty-nine members of the Senate just voted in favor of my amendment to block warrantless government surveillance of Americans’ browser history. It failed by just one vote. McConnell is that much closer to giving Bill Barr the green light to spy on Americans’ private information. https://t.co/IV5ERbte48
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) May 13, 2020
Congress is currently attempting to reauthorize three controversial portions of the Patriot Act that require approval every four years. A recent review of surveillance processes found that some of these sections were being exploited to justify warrantless surveillance— including of Republican Trump consultant Cater Paige. That may have inspired some Republicans to take a greater interest in internet privacy, according to Vitka.
Unfortunately, the Daily Beast reports that it has also spurred McConnell to expand the surveillance authority of the Patriot Act, protecting politicians and suspected foreign operatives from surveillance, while leaving other Americans and protected groups (like religious organizations and journalists) out in the cold.
The consequences of the Wyden amendment vote are still unknown. Vitka explained that the part of the Patriot Act, Section 215, which justified the mass warrantless collection of telephone metadata in the past, is broad and vague. The Wyden amendment would have prevented law enforcement from using Section 215 to justify the warrantless collection of internet history. However, just because the amendment failed, does not mean that the practice is explicitly allowed. The amendment’s failure essentially creates more of a gray area.
“We failed to protect the collection of internet activity with a warrant,” Vitka said. “What the government thinks it can do with the status quo, honestly we don’t know, and I have more questions than I had yesterday.”