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Silicon Valley Looks to Senate as House Passes Watered-Down NSA Bill

Tech and privacy groups dropped their support of the House bill, which passed 303-121.

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

House lawmakers approved legislation Thursday aimed at curbing bulk data collection by the National Security Agency, but it was over the objections of tech companies and privacy advocates, who said the watered-down bill didn’t offer many new protections.

The legislation, called the USA Freedom Act, would require telephone providers like AT&T and Verizon to retain information about phone calls, called metadata, for 18 months so that the NSA could search it for terrorism investigations. The NSA would no longer be able to store the data itself.

But civil liberties groups, tech companies and some of the other original backers of the bill dropped their support this week, saying last-minute changes weakened it and left the NSA too many loopholes with which to quietly continue its bulk data collection efforts.

“The USA Freedom Act only prohibits bulk collection if you define ‘bulk collection’ as nationwide surveillance,” said Center for Democracy and Technology senior counsel Harley Geiger. “We hope the Senate makes significant improvements to the bill to provide the protections from mass surveillance that the public deserves.”

Reform Government Surveillance, a tech industry group backed by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook among others, was among the tech groups dropping their support for the bill on Wednesday, saying the legislation now “opens up an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data.”

In particular, privacy advocates worried about how the legislation now defines something called a “specific selection term,” which is used in explaining what sorts of records the NSA can collect. Changes to the term could allow for the bulk collection of Americans’ private information based on ZIP codes or IP addresses, they said.

Other last minute changes to the bill included the elimination of some transparency updates aimed at giving Americans a better understanding of the number of NSA data requests to companies, according to the New America Foundation, which posted a guide to the bill’s alterations.

“The bill was so weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the last week that the government still can order — without probable cause — a telephone company to turn over all call records for ‘area code 616’ or for ‘phone calls made east of the Mississippi,’” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, who voted against it Thursday.

California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren said she couldn’t support the bill because the new language was too vague and potentially left too many loopholes for NSA bulk data collection. “Regrettably, we have learned that if we leave any ambiguity in the law, the intelligence agency will drive a truck through that ambiguity,” she said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte acknowledged Thursday morning that tech companies and privacy groups didn’t like the changes, but noted that “while some of those groups have withdrawn their support of the bill they do not oppose the bill. That is an important distinction.”

Judiciary Committee leaders issued a bipartisan joint statement saying that “while this is not a perfect bill, the USA Freedom Act is an important step in the right direction.”

Supporters of the intelligence community had opposed the House Judiciary Committee’s earlier version of the legislation because of concerns that it would hamstring the ability of the NSA to collect data it needs for investigations.

That view was also supported by the White House, which said Wednesday night that it strongly supported the revised bill. “The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” the White House said in a statement.

Supporters of tougher restrictions on NSA data collection are now shifting their focus to the Senate, which has not yet acted on a similar bill.

After the House approved the measure, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that he was “disappointed that the legislation passed today does not include some of the meaningful reforms contained in the original USA Freedom Act,” and that he would continue to push for those reforms.

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