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Senate bill would let FBI read your emails without a court order

The 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act would deal a blow to privacy by making government surveillance easier.

Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, which just OKed a bill that would let the FBI obtain email records more easily.

Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, which just OKed a bill that would let the FBI obtain email records more easily.

Al Drago/Getty

Better watch what you put in email.

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would make it easier for the government to read what you're writing online.

The 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act, if enacted into law, would let the FBI obtain email records without a court order. All the agency would need is a National Security Letter, which lets the FBI get information from companies about their customers without alerting the person being investigated. Currently, the FBI can access phone records that way, but not emails.

The bill is the latest move by the federal government to shore up its powers when it comes to surveilling citizens. The government has been battling Apple and other tech companies for more access to data stored on devices. Law enforcement argues it can't fight crimes unless it has access to information on mobile gadgets. Technology companies and rights groups argue that features like strong encryption, which scrambles data so it can be read only by the intended recipient, are needed to keep people safe and protect privacy.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Tuesday in a joint statement that the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act makes it easier for the government to keep Americans safe.

"The threat of terrorism remains high, so it's vital that we provide intelligence agencies with all the resources they need to prevent attacks both at home and abroad," Feinstein said.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the lone dissenting voice on the 15-member Senate committee, vowed to work on reversing the "dangerous provisions."

"This bill takes a hatchet to important protections for Americans' liberty," he said in a statement. "This bill would mean more government surveillance of Americans, less due process and less independent oversight of US intelligence agencies. Worse, neither the intelligence agencies, nor the bill's sponsors have shown any evidence that these changes would do anything to make Americans more secure."

Now that the bill has passed in the Intelligence Committee, it next will be considered by the full Senate.