Congress must decide by year’s end whether to overhaul a controversial surveillance program that collects the content of Americans’ emails, phone calls, text messages and other electronic communication without a warrant, says USA Today. “This law is supposed to be a tool to fight terrorist threats overseas; instead it’s being used as an end-run around the Constitution,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wyden has promised to put a hold on any bill that allows the government to continue spying on Americans without a search warrant. The program, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was approved by Congress in 2008 to increase the government’s ability to track and foil foreign terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It was designed to spy on foreign citizens living outside the U.S. and specifically bars the targeting of American citizens or anyone residing in the U.S. But critics say the program also sweeps up the electronic data of innocent Americans who may be communicating with foreign nationals, even when those foreigners aren’t suspected of terrorist activity. The government calls this “incidental surveillance,” and intelligence officials have so far refused to tell Congress how many unknowing Americans have had their personal data collected. The law is set to expire at the end of December, leaving it to Congress to either renew the program as it is or make changes to strengthen privacy and constitutional protections. The House Judiciary Committee is working to come up with a bipartisan reform bill that would allow legitimate surveillance of foreigners overseas to continue while better protecting Americans’ civil liberties.