U.S. officials are trying to stop major internet companies from abandoning FISA obligations
4 mins read

U.S. officials are trying to stop major internet companies from abandoning FISA obligations

U.S. government officials struggled Friday night to prevent what they feared will be a significant loss of access to key national security information after two major U.S. communications providers said they would end the orders under a controversial surveillance law set to expire at midnight. no longer comply, according to five people familiar with the matter.

A communications provider told the National Security Agency that on Monday it would no longer comply with orders under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows US intelligence agencies to collect the digital communications of foreigners abroad without a warrant – even if they are Text messages or emails sent to people within the United States.

Another provider suggested halting compliance at midnight Friday unless the law is reauthorized, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the site Condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.

The companies' decisions, shared confidentially and not previously reported, have alarmed national security officials, who strongly disagree with their position and argue that the law requires providers to continue to comply with government surveillance orders even after the law expires. That's because a federal court this month granted the government a one-year extension to continue collecting intelligence information.

Section 702 requires the government to obtain approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for the categories of intelligence information it wishes to collect. The court has issued “certificates” of recovery involving international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and foreign governments and related organizations. These certifications are valid for one year and were renewed this month at the government's request.

U.S. officials have long argued that the law is an important means of collecting electronic communications about foreign government opponents and terrorist groups. But its renewal has become an unusually contentious flashpoint, uniting conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats wary of granting the government broad surveillance powers without new restrictions.

The people familiar with the companies' compliance efforts declined to identify them by name but said their loss would be a major blow to U.S. intelligence collection.

“This is extremely concerning,” a U.S. official said of the possible loss of intelligence. “You can’t just flip a switch and turn it back on.”

U.S. officials heard Friday afternoon that providers planned to stop complying unless Section 702 was reauthorized.

Senators are trying to reach a last-minute agreement Friday evening on legislative changes to quickly reauthorize the measure and avoid a default. Last week, the House extended Section 702, but only for two years — and only after privacy advocates failed to pass an amendment that would have required U.S. intelligence agencies agencies to obtain a search warrant to review communications from Americans collected through the program. This offer failed in a dramatic vote of 212 to 212.

The House approval came despite former President Donald Trump's calls on social media to “KILL” the bill.

The law, first passed in 2008 and renewed several times since then, allows the NSA to collect the online traffic of non-Americans abroad for foreign intelligence purposes without the permission of US technology companies and communications providers. Communications to or from foreign targets deemed relevant to the FBI's national security investigations – about three percent of targets, according to the government – are passed on to the bureau. However, the law is controversial because some of these communications may be exchanges with Americans that the FBI may be able to view without a search warrant.

“The House bill represents the largest expansion of surveillance in 15 years since the original creation of Section 702, and a shameful Congress would expand surveillance at a time when reform is needed,” said Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology Security and Surveillance Project.

For their part, U.S. security officials have been extolling the law's benefits for years, and White House officials have said the intelligence gathered makes up more than 60 percent of the president's daily briefings. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray recently announced that it helped the bureau discover that Chinese hackers had penetrated the network of a U.S. transportation hub and that it helped stop a terrorist attack in the United States last year to thwart a possible attack on a critical infrastructure website.

“Not reauthorizing 702 — or gutting it with a new warrant request — would be dangerous and put American lives in danger,” Wray told Congress this month.