Does NSA bill cut privacy baby in half?

May 22, 2014 08:12 AM

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to curb some National Security Agency powers in legislation that Internet companies and privacy advocates said won’t do enough to prevent spying on innocent Americans.

The bill, approved 303-121 today, would end one of the most controversial domestic spy programs under which the NSA collects and stores as much as five years of phone records on Americans. The bill arrives almost one year after the spying was exposed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

A group of technology companies, including Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and Apple Inc., opposed the bill because of what it called an “unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data.” Some lawmakers who voted against it agreed the legislation should have been stronger.

“We have learned that if we leave any ambiguity in the law, the intelligence agencies will run a truck right through that ambiguity,” Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said during debate today on the House floor.

The bill is H.R. 3361 and would still need to be approved by the Senate before being sent to President Barack Obama. The White House yesterday said the president supports the measure because its “significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.”

Making Compromises

Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and chief sponsor of the legislation, said negotiations with the Obama administration “were intense” and the bill will prevent the NSA from collecting records in bulk.

“We had to make compromises,” Sensenbrenner said. “But this bill still does deserve support. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Sensenbrenner said passing the bill “is a first step and not a final step in our efforts to reform surveillance.”

“We have turned the tables on the NSA and can say to them: we are watching you,” he said.

Lofgren and Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, said they supported the bill as drafted by the House Judiciary Committee. However, they said they couldn’t support the final changes made to the bill.

“These changes appear to allow multiple interpretations as to what the NSA can and cannot do,” Poe said on the House floor today. “The NSA is out of control. It seizes massive amounts of data on Americans without their consent.”

Phone Records

House Speaker John Boehner indicated the bill is all that will be done legislatively this year to change NSA spying. “I do believe this will address the issues that need to be addressed at the NSA for this year,” the Ohio Republican told reporters.

Boehner said he wasn’t aware of the specific concerns by Internet companies and that “their views were clearly represented in the discussion that came to this agreement.”

The NSA has been collecting records including numbers dialed and call durations without the content of conversations.

If today’s bill becomes law, the records would be held by Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and other phone carriers. The government would have to get an order from the secret court that oversees NSA spying in order to compel the carriers to search the records for counterterrorism investigations. The bill also includes provisions for emergency circumstances.

The measure largely codifies a Jan. 26 agreement that Facebook, Apple and other companies reached with the Department of Justice to disclose details about how often they turn over data about their users in response to government national security requests.

Technology Coalition

Attention now turns to the Senate, where members have indicated support for similar legislation. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to consider the bill in June, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the panel.

Leahy said the House vote “continues the bipartisan effort to restore Americans’ civil liberties,” though he was disappointed the bill doesn’t include “meaningful reforms” that were in the original version. He vowed to push for those changes through his panel.

The group of Internet and technology companies, called the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, have said they want to be able to disclose more.

It said yesterday that the legislation “has moved in the wrong direction.” The coalition formed last year in an effort to distance Internet companies from perceptions that they willingly cooperated with government surveillance programs.

Personal Identification

“While it makes important progress, we cannot support this bill as currently drafted and urge Congress to close this loophole to ensure meaningful reform,” the coalition said in a statement yesterday.

The coalition supports limits on the government’s ability to collect data about their users and permission “to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information,” according to its website.

Lawmakers, companies and privacy groups opposed to the bill mainly objected to language added that would allow the government to collect records that identify “a person, entity, account, address or device,” which critics say is too broad.

The House Rules Committee didn’t allow any amendments to the bill on the House floor today.

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