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Can the FBI Access My Browsing History?

The kind of websites a person visits can tell you a lot about them. For instance, if someone is visiting ISIL message boards or googling bomb recipes, that might indicate future criminal behavior. And of course federal law enforcement would like as much access as possible to information that might help them prevent or solve crimes. So does that mean they can access your internet browsing history?

Currently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation needs a warrant to view your web activity, but the agency is pushing for an amendment that would allow it to access your internet browsing history without a warrant in terrorism and spy cases.

Letters of Security

The change has to do with the FBI's use of National Security Letters, or NSLs, when conducting investigations. NSLs don't require court orders, therefore there is no warrant and no judicial determination of probable cause for the information the agency is seeking. Furthermore, most NSLs come with a gag order attached, prohibiting the person or entity subject to the request from even disclosing that it has received an NSL.

As it stands now, the FBI can only access four types of basic subscriber information from internet companies using an NSL: your name, address, length of service, and telephone bill records. The FBI considers this limitation a "typo," and contends the bureau should be able to obtain "electronic communication transactional records," including include a person's internet protocol address, which websites she is visiting, and how much time she spends on a given site. FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress the current limitation "affects our work in a very, very big and practical way."

To Warrant, or Not to Warrant

But privacy advocates disagree, saying the change would "dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about users' online activities without oversight." A letter sent to Congress and signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others claims the additional information "would paint an incredibly intimate picture" of a person's life, including her political affiliation, medical conditions, religion, and even daily routine.

And without independent judicial review, there would be no way to verify if the FBI was, as it contends it will, limiting its use of NSLs to terrorism or spy cases. The FBI made a similar push for browsing history access six years ago, and was rebuffed, and the Senate Intelligence Committee recently voted out an authorization bill with the NSL amendment. We'll see whether this latest legislative effort will give the feds access to your latest internet activity.

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