Follow Us

We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. If you continue to use this site, we'll assume you're happy with this. Alternatively, click here to find out how to manage these cookies

hide cookie message

House approves weakened bill to limit NSA bulk collection

Critics of the bill say they plan to push for changes as it moves to the Senate

Article comments

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill that would limit the National Security Agency's bulk collection of domestic phone records, even as several civil liberties and tech groups withdrew their support after last-minute changes.

The amended version of the USA Freedom Act, approved by a 303-121 vote in the House Thursday, continues to give the NSA authority to collect telephone and other records from large groups of people because of a change in the definition of the search targets allowed, critics said.

Still, backers of the legislation said it will end the NSA's practice of collecting nearly all U.S. telephone records. The bill represents a huge step forward and would require the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to publish its major surveillance opinions, supporters said.

The amended bill, supported by President Barack Obama's administration, is not perfect, many supporters said, but is better than nothing. The amended bill represents a "first step, not a final step" in congressional efforts reform U.S. surveillance programs, said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and vocal critic of the NSA phone records program.

"The days of the NSA indiscriminately vacuuming up more data than it can store will end with the USA Freedom Act," Sensenbrenner said. "In the post-Freedom Act world, we have turned the tables on the NSA and can say to them, 'we are watching you.'"

The House bill now heads to the Senate, where it could be further amended. Critics of the House bill said they will fight for stronger privacy protections in the Senate.

Opponents of the bill argued the amended version would allow the NSA to target wide groups of people with its surveillance. The result of the changes is a bill "that will not end bulk collection, regretfully," said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. "Regrettably, we have learned that if we leave any ambiguity in law, the intelligence agencies will run a truck right through that ambiguity."

The House Rules Committee made changes to the USA Freedom Act Tuesday after two other committees had approved an older version backed by several tech and civil liberties groups. After the changes, Facebook, Google, Apple, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups withdrew their support.

One of the major changes to the bill is an expended definition of a "specific selection term" that the NSA must use to target its searches. The amended version of the bill allows the NSA to target things such as a "person, entity, accounts, address, or device," instead of, in the original language, a "person, entity, or account."

The words "address" and "device" in the new language, as well as the open-ended term "such as," makes the new definition "incredibly more expansive than previous definitions," the EFF said in a blog post.

The amended bill also removed a provision banning the so-called reverse targeting of U.S. persons by accessing their communications through a legal surveillance target, and it limited the amount of reporting that telecom and Internet companies can publish about surveillance requests they receive, critics said.

The bill's requirement that the surveillance court publish its major findings, and its provision allowing the court to call upon privacy advocates and other experts when examining surveillance requests will limit over-expansive surveillance programs, said Representative John Conyers, Michigan Democrat.

However, critics of the changes to the specific selection term definition are correct in saying the new language is not as "clean or straightforward" as the old version's language, he acknowledged.

"Nothing in the [new] definition explicitly prohibits the government from using a very broad selection term like, 'area code 202' or the entire Eastern seaboard," he said. "But that concern is largely theoretical; that type of collection is not likely to be of use to the government."

Conyers didn't explain why the NSA has believed, up to this point, that collecting all phone records across the U.S. is useful.

Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, called on Congress to require the NSA to get a court-ordered search warrant, with evidence of probable cause of a crime, before collecting phone records.

When Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, noted that U.S. agencies have never needed a search warrant for phone records because they aren't considered personal records, Holt disagreed. "Is there any American who doesn't think this is a search?" he said.

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.



Share:

More from Techworld

More relevant IT news

Comments



Send to a friend

Email this article to a friend or colleague:

PLEASE NOTE: Your name is used only to let the recipient know who sent the story, and in case of transmission error. Both your name and the recipient's name and address will not be used for any other purpose.

Techworld White Papers

Choose – and Choose Wisely – the Right MSP for Your SMB

End users need a technology partner that provides transparency, enables productivity, delivers...

Download Whitepaper

10 Effective Habits of Indispensable IT Departments

It’s no secret that responsibilities are growing while budgets continue to shrink. Download this...

Download Whitepaper

Gartner Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Information Archiving

Enterprise information archiving is contributing to organisational needs for e-discovery and...

Download Whitepaper

Advancing the state of virtualised backups

Dell Software’s vRanger is a veteran of the virtualisation specific backup market. It was the...

Download Whitepaper

Techworld UK - Technology - Business

Innovation, productivity, agility and profit

Watch this on demand webinar which explores IT innovation, managed print services and business agility.

Techworld Mobile Site

Access Techworld's content on the move

Get the latest news, product reviews and downloads on your mobile device with Techworld's mobile site.

Find out more...

From Wow to How : Making mobile and cloud work for you

On demand Biztech Briefing - Learn how to effectively deliver mobile work styles and cloud services together.

Watch now...

Site Map

* *