A controversial act that makes it easier for US law enforcement to monitor citizens' emails or phone calls without a warrant has just been approved by the House Judiciary Committee. The committee followed the Senate in voting to extend provisions from the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which negates the need for a wiretap warrant if one of the parties is located outside the US and authorizes surveillance performed years earlier under the Bush Administration. The original bill was set to expire this year, but the extension would make it effective until June of 2017. Unlike in the Senate's committee, where it was approved 13 to 2, the vote here was slightly more contested: 23 members voted for it, 11 against.
In both houses, however, the bill's opponents cited privacy and transparency concerns. The National Security Agency has refused to disclose how many people it monitors under the act, arguing that revealing this information would itself violate privacy, and the Obama Administration has argued that opponents can't sue to have it declared unconstitutional because agencies like the ACLU have no way of knowing who's being surveilled. Despite this, the Supreme Court has opened the door to challenging the amendment. On the other side, supporters like committee chairman Lamar Smith (of SOPA fame) argued that "we have a duty to ensure the intelligence community can gather the intelligence they need to protect our country."
While the bill has been approved by committees in both houses, it's still a ways from becoming law. First, it must pass a general vote in the House and Senate, after which the two versions would need to be reconciled and signed by the President. No date has been set for a general vote, but we're waiting to see if the US government is willing to reconsider the surveillance policy it's been operating under since well before the 2008 amendment was passed.