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Tech Companies, Privacy Rights Groups to Fight FBI Again


Technology companies and rights groups are preparing to fight the Federal Bureau of Investigation again over privacy rights.

The federal government and technology companies have argued many times about the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who died in 1941, called privacy “the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”

The latest dispute about privacy is about the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA. That law took effect 30 years ago. It limits the government’s access to electronic communications and other information.

Since the act was passed in 1986, there have been many changes in technology. The act is now considered outdated by many people.

Congress has been considering ways to change the law to protect the privacy of people when they use the internet. At the same time, Congress wants to give government agencies the power they need to enforce laws and protect the public.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee began considering an amendment to the ECPA. It would expand the government’s ability to collect electronic information. The amendment would permit the government to use a National Security Letter, or NSL. When the government uses an NSL it does not need an order from a judge.

The amendment would let the FBI demand a person’s internet search history and internet protocol address. This would permit the agency to see what websites a person visits and how much time is spent on a site as well as where the internet user is. The agency would not need to get the approval of a judge before getting this information.

The FBI says the ECPA permits the agency to request such information although it only refers directly to telephone records. FBI Director James Comey has said the amendment is needed to clear up any confusion about what information the agency can gather without a judge’s permission. He says the agency’s work has been slowed in “a very, very big and practical way.”

But large technology companies and civil liberties groups wrote to Congress recently opposing the amendment.

They said the amendment “would dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about users’ online activities without court oversight.”

Representatives of Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and others groups signed the letter.

NSL debate

These organizations are sharply critical of governments’ use of National Security Letters. The letters often ban companies from telling users that their information is being gathered. The organizations believe that the letters give too much power to the government. They also make it difficult to predict what the government may ask for next.

Comey has said the amendment is the agency’s top legislative goal.

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

VOA Correspondent Smita P. Nordwall reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

comprehensive – adj. including many, most or all things

internet protocol address – n. the letters, numbers and symbols that are used to show the location of a site on the Internet

access – n. permission or the right to enter, get near, or make use of something or to have contact with someone (usually + to)

oversight – n. the act or job of directing work that is being done

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