Congress Is Poised to Give Trump Administration Powerful New Spying Powers

The Trump administration wants more spying power — and Congress appears poised to give it to them. 

Touting national security to justify spying powers that jeopardize our constitutional rights is a strategy that we have seen before. It happened with the Patriot Act after 9/11, and members of Congress and government officials are now employing similar arguments again. This time it involves a drone bill that some in Congress are pressing to be sneakily inserted into a larger piece of legislation that could be considered this month. 

According to news reports, members of Congress are lobbying to add the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018 to the Federal Aviation Agency Reauthorization Act. Proponents of the bill claim that it will make our country safer. But, in reality, the drone legislation will give new surveillance powers to the Trump administration to spy on journalists, activists, and other Americans without a warrant. 

According to bill sponsors, the bill’s intent is to arm the “Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department with the ability to act quickly and effectively when a drone poses a risk to large-scale events and government facilities.” This goal may be admirable, but the bill does not achieve it. 

Instead, the bill empowers these agencies to warrantlessly spy on Americans without complying with existing US laws including the Wiretap Act, Stored Communications Act, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Generally, these laws require the government to get a warrant if they want to wiretap or access other types of stored communications. 

The drone bill, however, exempts DHS and DOJ from these restrictions anytime it deems a drone a “threat” to certain covered areas. The bill defined covered areas so broadly — including areas where there may be emergency responses or federal investigations— that it will inevitably sweep in areas where media organizations have a legitimate interest in reporting. 

As we have noted before, this surveillance could ultimately sweep in communications of media organizations using drones to report on disaster areas or seeking to uncover details of children being held in immigration detention centers. It can also include information about private companies or even just drone hobbyists. 

Indeed, in a June hearing, a DHS representative admitted that surveillance was a benefit of the bill. In response to questioning, David Glawe, undersecretary for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said that using drones “for law enforcement purposes to conduct surveillance on criminal suspects, terrorist, foreign intelligence is going to be an absolute benefit in how we develop these powers and procedures.” 

The bill also authorizes more than just collection of communications and other information from drones. It will also likely be interpreted to allow the agencies to hack or interfere with radio signals, without any court approval. While the agency has not specified what “counter drone” surveillance techniques it intends to purchase, we know that companies are developing and marketing products that can hijack drones, jam signals within a given area, and more. 

Jamming of signals could impact the ability of individuals on the ground to use WiFi or cellular networks, jeopardizing public safety by limiting the ability of hospitals, first responders, and other medical professionals to function. Similarly, there is no guarantee that the government only hacks drones that are in fact malicious or that efforts to hijack a drone do not result in unintended consequences. 

These risks are precisely why in July 2018 the FAA itself sent a letter to several stating that counter-drone technology was not ready for use in civil airports given the dangers it poses. Among other things, the letter noted that this technology has “safety implications,” including the risk of “false positives.” As a result, the technology could create greater “hazards” than it intends to mitigate.  Despite these warnings, the proposed drone bill would give DHS and DOJ virtually carte blanche to use these counter-drone techniques without any judicial oversight or sufficient civil remedies in cases where individuals are harmed. 

Moreover, once collected, similar to other national security authorities, the bill creates a backdoor allowing this information to be used for purposes that have nothing to do with protecting individuals from drone threats. This sensitive and private information can be retained and used in broad circumstances, including supporting a “safety or security” function of DHS or DOJ. This could include general law enforcement, border security, or immigration enforcement. 

Exempting the government from following existing laws is entirely unnecessary to protect against drones that may pose a threat to public safety. In cases where a true emergency exists, the Wiretap Act and other federal law generally allow the government to quickly intercept and gather information and only seek a warrant after-the-fact. This carefully balances the government’s need to gather information quickly in an emergency, with the judicial oversight that is necessary to ensure that the government doesn’t falsely claim an emergency to avoid the Constitution’s warrant requirement.

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Anonymous

RIIIGGHHT, Fake news. with progressives in control of Congress nothing that might in the slightest way help Trump is going to get passed. The progressives controlling the Democrat party are America's enemies. One-third of the Republican party, the never Trumpers, are also progressives and America's enemies.
That is the headwind Trump is fighting in trying to pull the republic back from the brink of tyranny.

Robert J Lindey

Could you be overestimating the amount of Non-Trump Republicans?

Anonymous

RWNJ

Anonymous

what flavor of Kool-Aid is yours?

Anonymous

We are so divided that if "Team USA" were a sports team we would never win a single game against any foreign teams. Anyone concerned about good jobs and individual liberties should want us united as a country. We need real leaders to unite us like Jimmy Carter.

Anonymous

Welcome to 1984.
A thought is a crime if it's not approved by the state.
Thank you for participating.

Anonymous

The pride of American exceptionalism comes to a stretching halt when you discover that you are classified as a KST in the United States. At first, you argue that it is indeed a mistake and that you are just being paranoid and confused. After that, you come to terms of betrayal and regret that you might have said something or behaved in a way that resulted in a heightened sense of alert by the security apparatus in the country. But soon, the reality sets in that this will l be with you for the rest your life, not only here in the United States but that it may follow you to other countries as well. You will be deprived of equal opportunity, subject to higher surveillance, tracking, monitoring and experience deterrence or “show of force” by local authorities.
The rush of feelings and life-altering withdrawal sets in; it is like being diagnosed with terminal cancer, but you are not going to die, but you are going to have to go on day after day like if everything is normal and you can be a normal productive member of society. But that is a lie, you know every law enforcement officer is alerted about you, that your entry/exist and lifestyle is subject to extra security – you and your family and friends are never going to be like everyone else, nor will you be given a chance to enjoy the purest benefits and the joy of US citizenship. The implications are an outright loss of hope, mistrust, and hopelessness, and withdrawal from society and community. At times, you forgo public places, entertainment, and other avenues because you just want to be invisible. When you are in five-eyes countries, you are faced with a higher level of surveillance, when you are under US jurisdiction; the US security apparatus takes extra steps to conduct monitoring and surveillance of you on foreign soil. The Passport issued is compromised, promoting extra screening by other countries. The US truly does make sure that you are branded and stand out like a threat for the World to see. Yet, you have committed no crime, you have done no wrong, but you are guilty and, in most cases, guilty of something that is uncontrollable. Your name, your place of birth, your ethnicity, religion, or just your divergent personality. Whatever the reason whatever the cause, the idea of due process and equality is forever shattered. No more shining city on the hill, no more beacon of hope, but instead despair, and fear.

Anonymous

The drones are already in use surveilling folks over their houses. Some are stationary, others fly in a pattern. Theyre just trying to legalize what is already happening...

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