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House approves effort to limit NSA searches of US data

The amendment to a defense spending bill would end a 'backdoor loophole' allowing warrantless searches

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The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to limit the National Security Agency's ability to search U.S. records, after a similar provision was stripped out of a bill intended to rein in the agency.

The House, by a 293-123 vote late Thursday, approved a bipartisan proposal to limit the NSA's surveillance programs by requiring the agency to get a court-ordered warrant to search U.S records in its possession.

The proposal, offered as an amendment to a Department of Defense funding bill, would close the so-called "backdoor search" loophole in the FISA Amendments Act, a law allowing NSA surveillance of overseas communications. The final vote on the defense bill is expected Friday, with the bill next moving to the Senate if it passes the House.

The FISA Amendments Act authorizes overseas surveillance of online and telephone communications and prohibits the agency from intentionally targeting U.S. residents. But the law does not prohibit the agency from querying U.S. communications inadvertently collected under the foreign surveillance program.

Intelligence officials have acknowledged in recent months they do conduct warrantless searches of U.S. records under the program, leading to protests from civil rights and privacy groups.

The NSA amendment, offered by a group of representatives including Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, would also prohibit the NSA or other U.S. agencies from using any funds to request or require a company to build a back door into any product or service in order to allow surveillance. News reports based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have suggested the agency has approached tech companies about building back doors into products.

The warrantless search of U.S. records violates the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches, Massie said on the House floor. "The American people are sick of being spied on," he said.

The warrant search provision was originally part of the USA Freedom Act, a bill aimed at limiting the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, but negotiators stripped out the provision under pressure from President Barack Obama's administration in the days before the House passed the bill in late May.

The amendment drew support from several liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. The amendment's point was, "yes, we need to protect our country, but we also need to honor our Constitution," Lofgren said.

Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, opposed the amendment, saying it didn't relate to the defense funding bill it was added to. "There's nothing in this amendment about funding," he said. "The goal is to change policy."

The USA Freedom Act contained "carefully crafted reforms" negotiated between House leaders and intelligence officials, and the Massie amendment would upset a "closely negotiated" compromise, said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The USA Freedom Act already limits what the NSA can do with the U.S. data it collects, he said.

The amendment would "make our country less safe," added Representative Dutch Ruppersberger from Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Earlier on Thursday, the House, by voice vote, approved an amendment to the defense funding bill that prohibits the NSA from engaging in any activities that undermine encryption standards developed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. In late 2013, news organizations reported that the NSA had tampered with NIST's process of choosing encryption algorithms.

Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat and author of the amendment, said the provision will help restore faith in NIST's standards-setting process.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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