Our online search history includes some of our most sensitive personal information – our private medical issues, our religious and political beliefs, our associations with people and causes. Yet the Director of National Intelligence recently revealed that the government has interpreted the Patriot Act as giving the FBI authority to collect logs showing who has visited particular web pages.
In the past, the government has relied on Section 215 of the Patriot Act – which allowed warrants to be waived under an elastic standard of national security – to view “business records,” including website visits. Yet this past spring, Congress allowed Section 215 to lapse altogether.
In the wake of that development, Charlie Savage of The New York Times recently reported that on Nov. 25, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) received a letter from John Ratcliffe, Director of National Intelligence, correcting an earlier letter that stated that none of 61 orders issued under Section 215, before its expiration, by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the past year involved tracking web browsing. In his revision, Director Ratcliffe said that one of the orders did involve collection of logs from a foreign country to a U.S. web page.
As usual with the surveillance bureaucracy, we are left with more questions than answers.
Did the FBI collect web browsing data before last year?
With the expiration of Section 215, is the FBI collecting web browsing data now under a different authority?
With an agency tracking foreign visits to a U.S. website, how does it treat the incidental collection of data on U.S. persons that would inevitably be revealed during such tracking?
If you follow these issues, you know not to hold your breath for answers to questions like these from the bureaucracy. Perhaps the best response would be to put the so-called Daines-Wyden amendment back on the table, a measure that received 59 votes in the Senate, one short of that body’s requirement for adoption. This measure, with Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) in a bipartisan partnership with Sen. Wyden, would make it illegal for the government to surveil our online information, including web browsing and geolocation histories.