Feds Snooped IP Addresses Using Website Logs

John Lister's picture

The Director of National Intelligence has confirmed the government collected visitor information from a US webpage using powers stemming from the PATRIOT Act. It's reawakened political debate about whether search and browsing history should be part of these powers.

The argument centers on Section 215 of the act which gives the government the authority to collect "tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information."

In the past that's been interpreted to include electronic records such as phone logs. Critics have claimed officials don't do enough when using these powers to make sure that don't gather information about US citizens. (Source: csis.org)

One Case In 2019

A Senator recently wrote to the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, to ask if the government had used Section 215 to gather IP addresses and related browsing information. Ratcliffe originally said the government used the powers 61 times last year but none involved "Web browsing or Internet searches." (Source: arstechnica.com)

He's now written again to say this was an error and in fact one order did involve the FBI using its powers to get access to log entries for a single US web page, with the log showing IP addresses of computers that accessed it from a single, unnamed foreign country.

Legal Gridlock

The legal powers under Section 215 expired in March this year and won't have force again unless and until both houses of Congress agree not only to a renewal but the precise wording of the legislation authorizing the renewal. Attempts to do so since March have failed amid political gridlock.

The question now is whether the newly elected Congress will attempt to reauthorize the Section 215 powers and, if so, what restrictions it will impose. Politicians from both major parties have argued in support of amendments for specific controls which would not only block the government from deliberately trying to gather details about web browsing by Americans, but also reduce the risk of them unintentionally gathering such data while investigating foreign individuals.

What's Your Opinion?

What powers should law enforcement and other government agencies have to access records of who has visited a specific website? Should the rules be different for visits by US and foreign citizens? Is this a point of fundamental principle are is it more important what happens in practice?

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bloomdds_14318's picture

Because I doubt simply visiting a site means much in particular, I favor the ability of law enforcement to enforce laws with the overwhelming purpose of protecting people from other people who are intent on causing harm. At the same time, assessment of the appropriateness is based on what happens in practice. That is, if my ip address is captured incidentally, but I have no connections to illegal acts that could cause harm or to people where evidence shows they have done or intend to do illegal acts that could cause harm, then I'm ok that they have my ip address as a site visitor. I would rather they have the ability to defend and protect us than not have that ability. In that sense, I don't think I care to distinguish US and foreign citizens. There are bad people with bad intentions and I don't want the bad ones to feel protected. Our freedoms do not include the freedom to harm others.