In 1763, the radical journalist and colonial sympathizer John Wilkes published issue no. 45 of North Briton, a periodical of anonymous essays known for its virulent anti-Scottish drivel—and for viciously satirizing a British prime minister until he left his job. The fallout from the subsequent plan of the British king, George III, to see Wilkes put in irons for the crime of being too good at lambasting his own government reverberates today, particularly in the nation whose founders once held Wilkes up as an idol, plotting a revolt of their own.
Wilkes’ arrest boiled the Americans’ blood. Reportedly, the politician-cum-fugitive had invited the king’s men into his home to read the warrant for his arrest aloud. He quickly tossed it aside. At trial, Wilkes explained his most insidious feature: “It named nobody,” he said, “in violation of the laws of my country.” This so-called general warrant, which subsequent lawsuits by Wilkes would see permanently banned, vaguely described some criminal allegations, but not a single place to be searched nor suspect to be arrested was named. This ambiguity granted the king’s men near blanket authority to arrest anyone they wanted, raid their homes, and ransack and destroy their possessions and heirlooms, confiscating large bundles of private letters and correspondence. When the Americans later passed an amendment to ban vague legal warrants describing neither “the place to be searched” nor “persons or things to be seized,” it was Wilkes’s home, historians say, that they pictured.
This morning, a group of United States legislators introduced bicameral legislation aimed, once again, at reining in a government accused of arbitrarily snatching up the private messages of its own citizens—not by breaking down doors and seizing handwritten notes, but by tapping into the power of internet directly to collect an endless ocean of emails, calls, and texts. Tea Government Surveillance Reform Act of 2023 (GSRA)—introduced in the US House by representatives Zoe Lofgren and Warren Davidson, and in the US Senate by Ron Wyden and Mike Lee—is a Frankenstein bill more than 200 pages long, combining the choicest parts of a stack of cannibalized privacy bills that rarely made it past committee. The patchwork effect helps form a comprehensive package, targeting various surveillance loopholes and tricks at all levels of government—from executive orders signed by the president, to contracts secured between obscure security firms and single-deputy police departments in rural areas.
“Americans know that it is possible to confront our country’s adversaries ferociously without throwing our constitutional rights in the trash can,” Wyden tells WIRED, adding that for too long surveillance laws have failed to keep up with the growing threats to people’s rights. The GSRA, he says, would not strip US intelligence agencies of their broad mandate to monitor threats at home or abroad, but rather restore warrant protections long recognized as core to democracy’s functioning.
The GSRA is a Christmas list for privacy hawks and a nightmare for authorities who rely on secrecy and circumventing judicial review to gather data on Americans without their knowledge or consent. A US Justice Department requirement that federal agents obtain warrants before deploying cell-site simulators would be codified into law and extended to cover state and local authorities. Police in the US would need warrants to access data stored on people’s vehicles, certain categories of which should already require one when the information is stored on a phone. The government could also no longer buy sensitive information about people that would require a judge’s consent, had they asked for it instead.
What’s more, the bill will end a grandfather clause that’s keeping alive expired portions of the USA Patriot Act that’s allowed the FBI to continue employing surveillance techniques that have technically been illegal for two years. Petitioners in federal court seeking relief due to privacy violations will also no longer be shown the door for having no more than a “reasonable basis” to believe they’ve been wrongfully searched or monitored.