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FBI wants access to internet browsing history


 THE major players of Silicon Valley are going to war with the FBI over what the law enforcement agency says is simply a typo, but what the tech industry says is an egregious overreach of power.

Fresh off the heels of its highly publicised battle with Apple, the FBI is seeking to rewrite surveillance laws to allow it to browse a suspect’s internet history without a warrant.

The Obama administration says the power will only be used in cases of suspected terrorists and spies, but given the occasionally loose way in which anti-terror powers have been used, privacy advocates are very worried.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo have joined the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the World Privacy Forum, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups to oppose the move.

The group has been dubbed the ECTR Coalition and has written to the Senate Judiciary Committee calling on them not to grant the amendment, citing a history of government agencies abusing surveillance powers.

“This expansion of the NSL statute has been characterised by some government officials as merely fixing a ‘typo’ in the law,” the coalition wrote. “In reality, however, it would dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about users’ online activities without court oversight.”

FBI director James Comey is advocating for changing the language of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to force tech firms to provide the browsing history of its customers. The move would effectively make web browsing history the same as telephone bill records.

According to the Washington Post, agents would not be able to see specific details of what people clicked on when visiting a website, just the root domain and the time spent on the site. For example, they would be able to see the time someone spent on, but not which stories they clicked on.

The ECTR Coalition claims that along with other surveillance powers, the move would allow authorities to glean an “incredibly intimate picture of an individual’s life”.


In Australia, telcos have already been exposed for providing the internet browsing history of Australians to the government without a warrant.

Despite federal police and ASIO previously giving assurances to the public that such data could only be obtained with a warrant, a 2014 paper published by the parliamentary library revealed Telstra had provided URLs to law enforcement without a warrant.

At the time, the author of the paper Jaan Murphy said metadata laws allowed authorities access to such information as long as it didn’t contain the contents.

“The current regime for access to metadata arguably allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access (URLs) under the umbrella of ‘metadata’,” he wrote.

In late 2015 the UK passed a bill that made it a legal requirement for communications companies to retain all the web browsing history of customers for 12 months in case the spy agencies or police need to access them.

British police are able to view specific websites visited by a suspect but need judicial approval to access the content of the websites.