Washington — A coalition of public interest groups, companies, and associations sent a letter  to senators opposing a move that would give government agents greater access to electronic communications data and records of online activity without judicial oversight. In two different Committees, the Senate is considering modifying the law authorizing National Security Letters to expand the scope of customers’ information the FBI can directly request from Internet companies without first getting a court order.

In the letter, groups including the ACLU and Computer & Communications Industry Association express concern with this expanded surveillance authority, particularly after the FBI’s history of abusing this method of gathering information in the past. The requested expansion would mean the FBI could obtain a person’s email metadata, location or browsing history by issuing a letter to companies rather than obtaining a court order first. Currently, the FBI must seek a court order to obtain much of this information in criminal and national security investigations. The legal change could get added to either a fiscal reauthorization or as an amendment to a major email privacy reform bill.

CCIA has long advocated for modernizing electronic privacy laws to better reflect the protections in the Fourth Amendment. The following can be attributed to CCIA President & CEO Ed Black:

“While we can understand law enforcement’s desire to hasten access to information, our country has always respected the need to balance this with protections for citizens, foremost of which is judicial oversight of these information requests. Removing that oversight is not a small correction of the law as it is being portrayed—it’s a significant shift in the balance the founders and Congress intended to protect private information and the exercise of rights.

“If Congress approves this change, there can be little public scrutiny going forward because of the secrecy requirements that accompany these demands. Since companies have limited ability to be transparent about requests, the public will have little knowledge of the scope or frequency of the government’s use of the expanded authority.

“Given what we now know about the government’s past abuse of surveillance laws, particularly with National Security Letters, removing judicial oversight for more types of information is a mistake and one Congress should not even be considering seriously.”

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