Americans with family overseas who hope to visit the United States may soon face an increased risk of being surveilled by their own government.
Support in Congress is growing for intensified vetting procedures at the US border, which would see immigrants and foreign visitors subjected to the same levels of scrutiny as suspected terrorists and spies. A bill introduced last week by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) and forthcoming legislation from its House counterpart both aim to expand the use of a key foreign intelligence program—Section 702—for screening and vetting visitors to the US.
The House bill, which has yet to be introduced, would additionally target asylum seekers and those applying for nonimmigrant visas and green cards, according to a memo released by the House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI) last month.
In an interview with CBS on Sunday, US Representative Mike Turner, Republican from Ohio and HPSCI chair, said he had gained the support of his Democratic counterpart, Jim Himes, in advancing legislation that would include the enhanced vetting procedures.
The 702 program allows the government to force US companies to wiretap the communications of foreigners who are presumed to be overseas—even when they’re communicating with people inside the US. Billions of calls, texts, and emails are intercepted under the program and committed to a searchable database accessible by four US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
A warrant is not required to conduct searches of the database, and its targets need not be suspected threats to the country. While ostensibly for defense, the 702 program selects targets based on whether they’re expected to possess or receive “foreign intelligence information.” In May, the US State Department said the program was “essential to advancing and promoting US interests around the world,” citing its value as a diplomatic tool.
In a declassified report released this year, a presidential oversight board said the calls and messages of Americans intercepted under Section 702 are “highly personal and sensitive,” detailing exchanges between “loved ones, friends, medical providers, academic advisors, lawyers, or religious leaders.” These communications, according to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), a federal civil liberties watchdog, may provide “great insight into an individual’s whereabouts, both in a given moment and in patterns over time.”
Public knowledge of this surveillance, the board concluded, “can have a chilling effect on speech.”
The 702 program is slated to expire on January 1, 2024. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are rushing to find a solution that would enable the program to continue despite growing mistrust from lawmakers and the public following years of unauthorized use. Abuses of 702 data have included the targeting of racial justice protesters, political activists, and immigrants. Other misused searches of the database for information related to a sitting US congressperson, a US senator, and members of a local political party.