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House votes to renew surveillance powers revealed by Snowden

The vote gives the NSA the power to continue collecting information sent over the internet by foreigners outside the US.

An outline of the Statue of Liberty superimposed over a teal and purple circuit board.

The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday to renew US spy powers first revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

James Martin/CNET

The US House of Representatives gave a boost to the government's surveillance powers.

Lawmakers voted 256-164 on Thursday to extend NSA programs that collect communications over the internet for national security purposes.

The law that authorized the surveillance programs is set to expire on Jan. 19. 

That law, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, was passed in 2008. Under it, a court that hears secret national security matters decides whether to let the National Security Agency collect emails, documents and other internet communications in government surveillance programs known as Prism and Upstream.

The Prism program collects communications from internet services directly. The Upstream program collects data as it travels across the internet. The programs target people outside the US, but do collect the communications of Americans who communicate with the targets of spies overseas.

Details of those programs became public in 2013 when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed them to journalists, who published stories in the Guardian and The Washington Post. After those disclosures, the government declassified information about the programs and began publishing annual transparency reports about the use of the surveillance tools.

The original deadline to renew the surveillance powers passed on Dec. 31 without a debate on the floor of either house on potential reforms. Congress voted to extend the programs temporarily until Jan. 19. The Senate must also now vote to renew the powers before the programs can be extended further.

US intelligence agencies have pressed lawmakers to preserve the programs. In a letter to Congress signed by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the heads of the NSA, FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, officials said losing the authority to run these surveillance programs would put the country's national security in danger. "Section 702 has been instrumental in preventing attacks on the homeland and removing terrorists from the battlefield," the letter said.

The biggest sticking point for privacy advocates, including the ACLU, has been a policy allowing the FBI to bypass getting a warrant before accessing emails and other communications of Americans collected by the NSA under these programs.

An amendment that would have required the FBI to obtain a warrant to access information in the NSA's database failed in the House on Thursday. The bill extending the surveillance programs does require the FBI to get a warrant by arguing they have probable cause to search the NSA's database in open investigations that don't involve national security or terrorism. That requirement doesn't extend to open FBI investigations of terrorism and national security cases.

Demand Progress, a civil-liberties focused advocacy group, condemned the House for voting down the amendment. "By failing to close the backdoor search loophole in this bill, which exposes millions of innocent Americans to warrantless government surveillance, members of Congress have ceded incredible domestic spying powers to the executive branch," the organization said in a statement.

In debate on the amendment, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, argued that putting in place the warrant requirement would hinder the FBI's efforts to prevent terrorism attacks in the US. 

"This amendment, plain and simple, would disable 702, our most important national security tool," he said.

His arguments echoed concerns that requiring a warrant even in cases directly related to national security -- rather than other types of criminal investigations -- would put up dangerous barriers to communication between US intelligence agencies. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the intelligence community came under scrutiny for failing to share information with each other about the alleged perpetrators before the attacks.

In December, Snowden chimed in on what he and privacy advocates call a "back door" given to other intelligence agencies. He joined ACLU lawyers to answer questions on a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" forum and highlighted the issue of incidentally collected emails and other communications.

"These 'incidentally collected' communications of Americans can then be kept and searched at any time, without a warrant. Does that sound right to you?" Snowden said. 

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