Secret negotiations between US House leadership and the Obama administration has “watered down” legislation intended to reform US government surveillance of domestic phone data, privacy advocates say, as the bill heads for a vote in the House this week.
The bill – the USA Freedom Act – was originally intended to prohibit the US government’s large-scale collection of domestic telephone data. This version was passed through the US House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees this month accompanied by general support from the privacy and civil liberties community.
Yet recent closed-door negotiations between the leadership of the Republican-led House and the Obama administration have left the bill with sapped privacy protections that do not adequately address mass surveillance abuses, privacy advocates say.
The USA Freedom Act’s sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, filed on Tuesday a manager’s amendment with the House Rules Committee in an effort for it to get consideration on the House floor instead of the bill passed by the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.
The amendment expands from the agreed-upon USA Freedom Act language the definition for when government officials can search collected phone metadata records.
The new language modifies the prohibitions on bulk collection of domestic data to allow government officials to search for Americans’ phone records using a “a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device, used by the Government to limit the scope of the information or tangible things sought.”
This revised standard for the USA Freedom Act’s reform of surveillance is too broad and leaves privacy protections at risk, says Kevin Bankston, of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.
“We cannot in good conscience support this weakened version of the bill, where key reforms—especially those intended to end bulk collection and increase transparency—have been substantially watered down,” he said in a release on Tuesday.
The Sensenbrenner amendment may bar the US intelligence community from the kind of vast, national surveillance seen before revelations of National Security Agency spying, but “it is ambiguous enough to allow for large scale collection,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
“Put another way, [the bill’s new language] may ban ‘bulk’ collection of all records of a particular kind, but still allow for ‘bulky’ collection impacting the privacy of millions of people,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute.
The Sensenbrenner amendment also weakens the bill’s transparency provisions which outlined how much technology companies can disclose to customers about the extent of government requests of user data.
“Those transparency reporting provisions have been weakened to the point that they are almost identical to what the Justice Department has already agreed to let the companies report,” Bankston said. “Yet those bare-bones reports that the companies are already issuing, which lump a bunch of different surveillance authorities into a single rounded number, have done little to restore the lost trust of Internet users here and abroad.”
The House will vote on the USA Freedom Act on Thursday, National Journal reported citing a spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Meanwhile, opponents of the secretive negotiations are moving to counter the weakened surveillance reform bill.
Libertarian US congressman Justin Amash (R) has filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that is “materially identical” to the version of the USA Freedom Act that was advanced by the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees earlier this month.
Amash’s amendment, cosponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D) and Rush Holt (D), aims to deny funding from intelligence programs sanctioned under Section 215 of the US Patriot Act, authored by Sensenbrenner in 2001, except in certain circumstances.
"We are offering amendments to the defense authorization bill to shut down the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' private information," said Amash spokesman Will Adams, according to the MLive.com.
The NDAA is also set for consideration on the House floor this week, reportedly on Wednesday.
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to consider on Tuesday the rules of debate on the NDAA bill and whether or not to accept Amash amendment.
The NSA’s bulk collection of domestic telephony metadata was the first revelation that was published nearly one year ago among the leaked documents supplied by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.