The federal government gathered up visitor logs for some websites in 2019, the Office of Director of National Intelligence disclosed in letters made public this week. And the feds cited authority derived from a provision of the Patriot Act to do it.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe confirmed these actions in a November 6 letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), part of an exchange (PDF) first obtained and published by the New York Times.
The exchange begins with a May 20 letter from Wyden to the ODNI asking then-director Richard Grenell to explain if and how the federal government uses section 215 of the Patriot Act to obtain IP addresses and other Web browsing information. At the time, the Senate had just passed legislation re-authorizing the law. Wyden was among the privacy advocates in the Senate pushing to amend the law to prevent the FBI from using Section 215 to obtain users’ search and browsing histories, but his measure did not succeed.
Ratcliffe’s response to Wyden, six months later, said that the FBI did not use section 215 authority to harvest Internet search terms, and he added that of the 61 orders issued in 2019 (prior to the law’s expiration in March of this year), none involved “the production of any information regarding Web browsing or Internet searches.”
However, on November 25, Ratcliffe sent another letter to Wyden to “amend” his previous response. As it turns out, one of those 61 orders did indeed result in the FBI gaining access to “information that could be characterized as information regarding ‘Web browsing.'” Specifically, federal investigators collected log entries for “a single, identified US Web page” showing IP addresses that accessed it from “a specified foreign country.” The document names neither the site nor the country in question.
The amended letter “raises all kinds of new questions, including whether, in this particular case, the government has taken steps to avoid collecting Americans’ Web browsing information,” Wyden said in a statement. The senator added, “the DNI has provided no guarantee that the government wouldn’t use the Patriot Act to intentionally collect Americans’ Web browsing information in the future,” and he urged Congress to pass an amendment he proposed earlier this year.
The Patriot Act, including section 215, was…