Bipartisan bill would expand US data collection transparency requirements

Email, text, GPS and cloud info would be subject to the same rules as wiretaps.

Sen. Ronald Wyden (D-OR) (Mary Calvert / reuters)

A bipartisan group of legislators today introduced bills in the House and Senate that would expand transparency requirements when it comes to government surveillance of US citizens, adding email, text, location and cloud data to the existing reporting framework. Currently, the US government is required to alert Americans who have been targeted by wiretaps and bank record subpoenas, but this doesn't apply to digital or cloud data. The Government Surveillance Transparency Act aims to adjust the parameters of this rule, expanding it to cover more common, modern forms of digital communication and data storage.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, Montana Republican Steve Daines, New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Utah Republican Mike Lee, while a companion bill in the House of Representatives is backed by California Democrat Ted Lieu and Ohio Republican Warren Davidson. They argue that hundreds of thousands of criminal surveillance orders from US authorities go unreported each year, keeping Americans in the dark about the broad scope of government monitoring programs.

The bill also addresses the government's use of gag orders to halt technology companies from informing their customers of surveillance campaigns. While many tech companies have tried voluntarily reporting government subpoenas and data requests to their customers, authorities have used gag orders to keep these campaigns secret, according to the legislators.

“When the government obtains someone’s emails or other digital information, users have a right to know,” Wyden said in a press release. “Our bill ensures that no investigation will be compromised, but makes sure the government can’t hide surveillance forever by misusing sealing and gag orders to prevent the American people from understanding the enormous scale of government surveillance, as well as ensuring that the targets eventually learn their personal information has been searched.”

Alongside reforms to notification requirements and the gag-order process, the legislation would force authorities to publish online general information about every surveillance order they complete. It also would require law enforcement to notify the courts if they search the wrong person, house or device in the scope of an investigation, and also if a company shares unauthorized information.