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Bill to restrain warrantless searches of Americans introduced to Senate, House

Oct. 24 (UPI) — Bipartisan groups in the Senate and House of Representatives introduced legislation Tuesday that seeks to restrain government agencies’ surveillance powers on American citizens.

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Reforming and Improving the Government’s High-Tech Surveillance, or USA RIGHTS Act, aims to reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the federal government to conduct warrantless searches of Americans’ private communications, including calls, emails and text messages that are routinely included in searches aimed at foreign targets.

The USA RIGHTS Act would impose strict limits on when a warrantless search can be conducted, with some exceptions allowed for cases of terrorism

The bill was introduced to the Senate by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. In the House, the bill was brought forward by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Ted Poe, R-Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

“Congress must not continue to allow our constitutional standard of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to be twisted into ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,'” Paul said in a statement. “The American people deserve better from their own government than to have their Internet activity swept up in warrantless, unlimited searches that ignore the Fourth Amendment.”

Section 702 is designed to allow federal agencies to collect surveillance information on foreign targets, including communications with US persons. But once that information is collected, federal agencies, including the FBI, can conduct searches on anybody for any criminal offense, not just terror-related crimes.

Nongovernmental  groups often refer to these queries using US-person information as “backdoor searches,” since they effectively evade protections imposed by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution,” Human Rights Watch said in an analysis of Section 702. “Those protections are designed to prevent abuses such as monitoring that is baseless or discriminatory, or that targets people based on their exercise of their free-expression rights.”

While the USA RIGHTS Act has some bipartisan support, a separate bill introduced into the Senate by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., aims to strengthen Section 702 formally allowing “backdoor searches” instead of them being a legal loophole used by federal law enforcement.

That bill was debated in secret behind closed doors Tuesday, reported the Washington Post.

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