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Tech giants oppose NSA reform bill for timid safeguards against spying

Published time: May 22, 2014 03:32
The National Security Agency (NSA) (AFP Photo)

The National Security Agency (NSA) (AFP Photo)

Ahead of Thursday’s US House vote on a bill sold as reform of a major US government spying program, top technology firms like Google have joined civil liberties and privacy groups in calling the legislation inadequate in fighting mass surveillance.

The Reform Government Surveillance coalition – AOL, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo – offered a statement on Wednesday denouncing the USA Freedom Act as a weak attempt at ending the government’s bulk storage of domestic phone metadata.

The USA Freedom Act would take the mass storage of phone records away from the government. Instead, telecommunications companies would be required to store the data. The bill would require the National Security Agency to get approval to search the telecoms’ cache of records from the often-compliant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Last-minute changes to the bill rankled privacy groups on Tuesday, leading many of them to decry the backdoor dealings as responsible for a “weakened,” “watered down” bill compared to what had previously passed the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees earlier this month.

On Wednesday, the tech coalition echoed these concerns, calling the amended legislation a move “in the wrong direction” of needed reform regarding mass surveillance.

"The latest draft opens up an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users' data," the coalition said. "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 loophole referred to by the coalition pertains to the USA Freedom Act’s definition for how and when government officials can search collected phone metadata records.

The new language – approved by House leaders and the Obama administration in recent days – 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, civil liberties groups said on Tuesday.

In addition, the legislation’s new language 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.

In addition to the tech coalition’s protest, the Computer & Communications Industry Association – whose members include Pandora, Samsung, Sprint, and others – said Wednesday it would “not support consideration or passage of the USA Freedom Act in its current form."

The Obama administration publicly threw its support behind the amended USA Freedom Act, saying the bill would “provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.”

“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 included.

Lawmakers opposed to the secretive negotiations attempted on Tuesday to counter the weakened surveillance reform bill by offering 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.

Yet the amendment was denied by the House Rules Committee late Tuesday.

The House is now scheduled to vote on the USA Freedom Act on Thursday under closed rules, which forbids adding amendments before the final vote.

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.

US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden (AFP Photo / Wikileaks)