Internet users' records could be accessed without court order, if the FBI is granted the expanded powers that it seeks. Civil rights advocates have denounced the effort, asserting that even the status quo violates Constitutional rights.
"The idea that the FBI would be given more powers when it's already been abusing lesser powers is, to put it mildly, appalling," said Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
Those concerns notwithstanding, the White House seeks to alter the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to expand the power of the FBI beyond those it currently has under the Patriot Act. Under the new law, Internet service providers would be called upon to report the activity of any user thought to be implicated in intelligence investigations.
The request comes on the heels of a glaring admission that FBI Director Robert Mueller made last week when, after testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he admitted that suspicion is not required to conduct surveillance.
Mueller originally told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that before any surveillance can take place, FBI guidelines require a suspicion of wrongdoing. That's not correct, and after the hearing Mueller sent a note to Durbin saying he misspoke and that suspicion of wrongdoing is not required after all.
"I don't think it was by design, but it is terribly convenient that, in the moment of actual scrutiny, he claims the less offensive standard," Buttar told HuffPost Wednesday. Another possibility, Buttar said, is that the director himself was unsure of the rules surrounding surveillance. To make the point, Buttar references recent reports of bureau agents cheating on exams about the extent of the FBI's power to conduct surveillance without evidence that a crime has been committed. The emphasis is not on the cheating, but on the implication that FBI agents don't bother to learn the rules.
The broader point though, is the reality of the current policy.
"It's basically a data collection effort," Buttar explains. "The idea is that they don't have to suspect any wrongdoing to take information from you because collecting information is going to feed these databases, according to the 'mosaic theory', which [the Department of Homeland Security] itself has rejected. DHS funded a study by the National Academy of Sciences that said this whole project is futile -- that you can't predict future crime from just sweeping up information about people's activities."
The charge is that by pursuing its perceived mandates, the FBI is damaging civil society. Last week a coalition of roughly 50 peace, environmental, and civil liberties groups wrote a letter to Congress seeking increased transparency and legislative limits to constrain the FBI.
Why is privacy important? Buttar explains:
"The public gets freedom when the individual gets privacy because when there is privacy, when you're not exposed for everything that you do, you do different things than when you know people are watching. It's that whole Heisenberg uncertainty principle. We don't want people being monitored because we know they act differently and they say different things. People aren't at liberty to speak their minds when they know that everything they're saying is being captured... And so historically we have avoided it because of the mere possibility that First Amendment activity would be chilled."
Government lawyers have said under the new policy the FBI could have access to Internet users' browser history, contact lists, and the dates and times their emails were sent and received. The content of emails, however, would not be accessible to the FBI.
Congress adjourns for August recess this Friday but the debate will resume again this fall, and the measure could become law as soon as October, in time for the new fiscal year.