Sen. Ron Wyden Wants To Stop the Government From Spying on Your Internet Searches

The Wyden-Daines Amendment would've prohibited warrantless monitoring of web activity, but it lost by one vote in the Senate. Will Nancy Pelosi bring it back in the House?


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"We've reached kind of an inflection point in the privacy debate," says Senator Ron Wyden (D–Ore.). With Americans spending more time online than ever before during the COVID-19 pandemic, he worries that government surveillance of the internet matters more now.

Before the Senate's May 14 vote to reauthorize the USA Freedom Act, formerly known as the PATRIOT Act, Wyden fought a losing battle to rein in the broad authority that it gives U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on the web activities of American citizens.

"Americans shouldn't have their most intimate information…snooped over by the federal government without a warrant," says Wyden. "That [information] is private and personal. It might be your dating history. It might be religious beliefs. It might be your fears…It's like data mining of somebody's thoughts."

Wyden, a Democrat, along with his Republican colleague Steve Daines (Mont.), tried attaching an amendment to the bill that would've explicitly banned government agents from collecting Americans' web search histories without a warrant from a non-FISA court. It was defeated by a single vote.

Now an anti-surveillance activist group called Fight for the Future is trying to convince Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and congressional Democrats to add the same amendment to the House version of the bill.

But in a political world where Democrats regularly call the president a power-abusing authoritarian in the making and Republicans bemoan a deep state plot to take down Trump, there's still only weak support for concrete measures to rein in the post-9/11 surveillance state.

"Nancy Pelosi has spent the last several years saying that this administration is dangerous. She impeached the president for abuse of power," says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future. "If she doesn't take this opportunity to get this amendment in place that at least puts some limit on this administration's surveillance authority, it's hard not to feel like the entire 'Resistance' rhetoric has been a bit of a scam."

Greer says Wyden's introduction of the amendment could be a way of alerting the public that intelligence agencies have already been collecting U.S. citizens' web search data. Wyden can't say that explicitly because that information would be classified.

"Senator Wyden has often been sort of a bit of a canary in the coal mine on things like this," says Greer. "He'll ask very specific questions of intelligence officials when they come to the Hill that sort of get at some of these things."

One example was Wyden's questioning of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in 2013 about the bulk collection of Americans' phone records. When Wyden directly asked Clapper "does the [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans," Clapper answered, "No, sir…not wittingly." Less than three months later, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden provided journalists documents showing that the FBI and NSA collected millions of cellphone records.

When Reason asked Wyden if he could provide evidence that the government has engaged in warrantless surveillance of Americans' web searches, he said that he could not discuss classified intelligence information but that he has put in requests for public disclosure of any practices of this sort.

"I believe there's a [records] reporting requirement," says Wyden.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) opposed Wyden in the Senate, claiming that additional limitations to the nation's surveillance laws would "jeopardize important tools that keep America safe."

Wyden says McConnell's claim is "flatly inaccurate" and that his amendment addresses McConnell's national security concerns because, during a crisis, law enforcement agencies would still be allowed to gather intelligence before obtaining a warrant.

A more modest Senate amendment requiring FISA courts to hear analysis from opposing parties, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, was included in the version of the bill that passed. But Republican Sen. Rand Paul's more radical effort to eliminate the surveillance of American citizens altogether without a warrant from a non-FISA court was defeated 11-85. Even Wyden voted against it.

"I think that Senator Paul started an important conversation…with respect to whether the whole framework needs to be reconsidered," says Wyden. "I've told him that right now, I think I've got my hands full trying to make the many reforms that are needed in FISA immediately."

Greer encourages anyone concerned about government surveillance of what citizens are searching for on the web to call Nancy Pelosi's office and pressure her to put a version of the Wyden-Daines Amendment, one of which is currently being drafted by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D–Calif.) and Rep. Warren Davidson (R–Ohio), back in the bill.

"It's really important that we remind lawmakers that the public does care about our right to be free from overly broad and intrusive surveillance," says Greer. 

Produced by Zach Weissmueller, opening graphics by Lex Villena

Music: "Europa" by Yehezkel Raz licensed from Artlist; "Ganymede" by Yehezkel Raz licensed from Artlist; "Hang Drum Traveler" by Max H. licensed from Artlist; "The End" by Max H. licensed from Artlist

Photos: Rand Paul in Congress, Win McNamee/CNP/AdMedia/SIPA; Rand Paul Listening, Toni L. Sandys/CNP/AdMedi/SIPA; Mitch McConnell leaving Senate chamber, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; James Clapper Testifying, Zhan Jun Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Ron Wyden with colleagues in Capitol, SIPA/Newscom; Bill Barr looks at camera, Sipa USA/Newscom; Mitch McConnell in halls of Capitol, SIPA/Newscom; Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff at podium, Aurora Samperio/ZUMA Press/Newscom; J. Edgar Hoover building, Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Newscom; Nancy Pelosi at press conference, Stefani Reynolds/picture alliance/Consolidated/Newscom; Nancy Pelosi talking to press, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; Trump holds up fist at White House, Andrew Harrer/UPI/Newscom; Web search in a dark room, Yui Mok/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Steve Daines talks with farmers, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; Ron Wyden talks to reporters, Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; Zoe Lofgren in Congress, US Senate Television via CNP/MEGA/Newscom 

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  1. Huh… Evan Greer. Odd-looking duck.

    1. Yes. Very few men actually look good as a woman.

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  2. We’re still living with bad laws and policies enacted during the Great Depression. What makes anyone think they can reign in the federal government now.

    And he actually thinks Pelosi will help? That bitch wants to spy on republicans – she’s not gonna remove laws that help her.

    1. Try the Civil War.

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  3. Surveillance and privacy — another issue where being wrong cuts across party lines. Makes it pretty clear how much of talk from certain Democrats and certain Republicans is just rhetoric.

    1. Of course it’s rhetoric. Which of the #Resistance Dems actually gave a damn about the expansion and consolidation of power into the Presidency from Jan 2009-Nov 8 2016? They’ve got no objection to any level of executive authority so long as it’s in the hands of a guy they voted for. If they actually get their wish and eliminate the electoral college (so that NYC, Chicago, and L.A. County can then take their “rightful” place and rule over the troglodytes in “flyover country”), don’t be surprised if their next push comes for an amendment to repeal Art1, Sctn3 and dissolve the Senate to remove the remaining portion of the government’s structure which they see as giving less populous states “over-representation”.

      How many owners of “pussy hats” thought that Rand Paul’s filibuster against the Obama administration asserting the right of the POTUS to order the assassination of anyone including U.S. Citizens without anything like due process was a “tinfoil hat” level act of paranoia? And how many realize that the ultimate “compromise” that resulted was just that the administration backed off to assert that the POTUS only has that power if the “National Command Authority” (aka, the Commander in Chief) decides that it’s “necessary” (someone will someday have to explain to me how that’s actually a check on anything)?

  4. When Reason asked Wyden if he could provide evidence that the government has engaged in warrantless surveillance of Americans’ web searches, he said that he could not discuss classified intelligence information

    As the practices are a flagrant violation of the constitution, it’s his DUTY as a Senator to tell the public everything he knows about these practices, as well as the names of the traitors who are running the programs.

    1. He knew the testimony Clapper was giving him in Congress was a lie, but did nothing more than ask ‘are you sure about that?’

    2. Not exactly. But he could have given a better response:

      I have seen evidence that the government is doing warrantless wiretapping and internet surveillance of Americans, but the details are classified. I urge the President to declassify the necessary information or the House or Senate Intelligence committee’s to conduct inquiries. The people need to know the truth.

      1. Not exactly.
        Yes exactly.
        When the government is committing crimes its his duty to tell us the truth about these things. He swore an oath and by not spilling the details he’s being complicit in violating his oath.

        Will the traitors try and crucify him for exposing their dirty treasonous secrets? Probably. He’s got a heck of a lot greater shot of coming out ahead than Manning and Assange, two nobodies with no power at all who did the right thing.

        1. Being complicit in covering up the crimes rather.

          I hate typing on phones

        2. He swore an oath to keep specifics secret, and exposure can be considered a crime. Apparently you don’t hold reps to high standards of ethics.

          1. No, I’m sure he should listen to a blowhard on a comment section of a rag and just expose all the classified stuff. Yep- that’s the ticket. (I’m agreeing with you- just pointing out the absurdity that you just blab state secrets without consequences.)

          2. There is the giant loophole where he cant be prosecuted for what is said on a congressional floor. He could release the info if he wanted with no penalty.

          3. He swore an oath that supersedes the oath to keep government secrets.

            I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same….

            As the Constitution does not permit Government actors to spy on American citizens without properly obtained warrants, government actors engaged in such activities are acting as enemies of the Constitution. They are traitors. They cannot hide behind ‘its classified’ since you cannot classify information in order to conceal crimes.

            No officer or official of the United States is under obligation to keep such crimes in confidence, rather they are obligated by their superseding oath of office to expose the crimes so that those accused may be tried and the People’s rights defended.

          4. There’s the official oath that they say while their hand is on the bible, then there’s the real oath. That oath says that their duty is to make sure the sweet gravy train that politicians and connected firms are on together doesn’t slow down. That oath is more important.

  5. “If she doesn’t take this opportunity to get this amendment in place that at least puts some limit on this administration’s surveillance authority, it’s hard not to feel like the entire ‘resistance’ rhetoric has been a bit of a scam.”

    “Of course, even if she does, it’s still hard not to feel like that.”

    1. The thing is, she’s not really conceptually against authoritarian policies and state surveillance of the public. Just look at 2006 when the Dems re-took both houses of the legislature on a platform of ending “illegal wiretaps”; it turned out that their preferred method of doing that was to make the level of wiretapping that had been happening legal as well as granting additional authority to the administration beyond what the Bush/Rove administration had even dreamed of asking for.

      That was then followed up with an expansion of executive power under the Obama administration that made the Bush era almost seem like a LP administration by comparison. The only part of all that which bothers Pelosi is that now all that authority is in the hands of trump (although she’d apparently rather put energy into trying to undo the 2016 election rather than reel in the executive branch).

      She’s not about to let this kind of amendment into the law this close to the election, but I’m sure her staff may have a stand-alone bill doing the same thing drafted in case Biden somehow manages to lose in November (which I’m guessing is far more likely than she could imagine).

  6. “the Government ”

    Which government?

    I assume you mean the US, but what about the spyware the Chinese build into everything?

  7. “But Rand Paul’s more radical effort to eliminate the surveillance of American citizens altogether without a warrant from a non-FISA court was defeated 11-85. Even Wyden voted against it.”

    Two questions here:
    1.Why is it ‘radical’ to require a warrant from a court of law before spying on US citizens?
    2.Why would Wyden vote against it? Is he just another Feinstein?

    1. He was trying to pass a more moderate bill and voting for this would have harpooned his chances to get other legislators on board with his measure.

      I presume.

  8. “It’s really important that we remind lawmakers that the public does care about our right to be free from overly broad and intrusive surveillance,” says Greer.

    I’m pretty sure lawmakers are aware that the public doesn’t actually give a shit – as long as the anal probings keep us safe from the bogeymen, we’ll happily drop our pants and bend right over. Unless you hate America and just want to see children die.

    1. It’s grandma that’s dying. Get it right. The next virus they have custom made in China will target the children.

  9. Well, there ya go. Our government is flagrantly violating our rights, and a total of 11 senators voted to stop. And obviously the sheeple don’t care. “Land of the free” my ass. It’s as big a pile of bullshit as “home of the brave”.

  10. Let’s be real though. FISA courts are just a rubberstamp, and the NSA is going to collect the data regardless of the legality.

    Pretending otherwise is just theater.

    1. I wonder if the FISC judge who is verbally berating the FBI recently over this stuff is:

      1. Just figuring out she is a rubber stamp
      2. Mad about it being made known in such an obvious way

    2. “”NSA is going to collect the data regardless of the legality. “”

      Yep. A NY Senator warned a President elect that the IC can screw you six ways to Sunday. Think about that. A senator warning an incoming president about the intel community’s lawlessness, vindictive, petty ways if you cross them.


  11. isn’t Wyden the same clown who think people should pay income taxes on their unrealized capital gains?

    1. People can be stupidly dead wrong on one thing and somehow manage to be correct on another.

      We are complicated and contradictory apes.

      1. truth. still, impressive to see it in action at times though.

  12. technology does provide convenience in human life. but on the other hand it becomes a threat of personal data from the user

  13. Here are the 11 Senators who voted for Rand Paul’s amendment:

    Blackburn (R-TN)
    Braun (R-IN)
    Cruz (R-TX)
    Daines (R-MT)
    Kennedy (R-LA)
    Lee (R-UT)
    Moran (R-KS)
    Murkowski (R-AK)
    Paul (R-KY)
    Scott (R-FL)
    Sullivan (R-AK)

    1. No reps from the party of civil rights??

      1. There’s a party that’s actually interested in protecting civil rights?

        You’d think that such a party would be popular enough to be counted among the “viable” parties in any given election.

  14. There’s basically zero chance Pelosi will do anything to restrict spying. She has been the NSA and Patriot Act’s biggest advocate in Congress.

  15. Ya know, if you’re going to write an article like this and tell us it got defeated by one vote, how about providing the names of those who voted to kill it? Do you want to change policies, or just bitch about them? Start naming the statists who vote to kill these things, and we can vote their sorry asses out of office.

  16. Wyden was too busy to vote “Aye” on requiring a warant before government searches our onlune effects? He was evidently also too busy to vote against the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act. He was actually surprised to find out that the Homeland Security Act indemnified pharmaceutical companies for using mercury as a preservative in childhood vaccines, and that was an issue he seemed to be passionate about.

  17. Wyden is no hero, he’s a coward. When he asked Clapper the question, he already knew the answer and knew it was classified. He was trying to trick Clapper into revealing classified information. If Wyden were a hero he’d reveal the information himself, not goad some stumblebum geezer into accidently revealing it.

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  19. I guess that Fight for the Future is trying to convince Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and congressional Democrats to add the same amendment to the House version of the bill. electrician odessa tx

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  21. Great software developers can avoid this, by enabling end-to-end encryption, especially for Enterprise Mobile Apps. However I don’t think snooping would be possible, even by governments.

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