House passes USA Freedom Act — but will it really rein in NSA spying?

Will it or won’t it? The House today passed the USA Freedom Act, which is meant to reform the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. But critics of the bill say it actually won’t.

Here’s a clue that the naysayers might be right: Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., primary sponsor of the bill, urged a yes vote but reportedly said he wished it “did more.”

Tech companies and advocacy groups on Wednesday pulled their support of the bill, saying changes to its language still leaves open the door to bulk collection of phone and/or Internet records and information. Among the dissatisfied: a coalition that includes Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter, plus the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy & Technology.

The EFF’s explanation of the language changes that are being called a loophole that paves the way for continued bulk collection:

In particular, we are concerned with the new definition of “specific selection term,” which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to surveil. The new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions. Less than a week ago, the definition was simply “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account.” While that definition was imperfect, the new version is far broader. The new version not only adds the undefined words “address” and “device,” but makes the list of potential selection terms open-ended by using the term “such as.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the House Judiciary Committee who was a co-sponsor of the initial version of the bill, agrees: “This is not the bill that was reported out of the judiciary bill unanimously,” she said, according to the Washington Post. The changes to the bill were reportedly the result of weeks of negotiations between the White House — which Wednesday voiced its support for the measure — intelligence officials and leaders in the House.

The USA Freedom Act, which transfers the responsibility of keeping the records to phone companies instead of the government, passed in a 303-120 vote. The first bill to pass in response to the leaks by Edward Snowden, it now goes to the Senate.

 

Photo: Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., speaks at a town hall meeting Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 in West Bend, Wis. He was the author of the USA Patriot Act, which gave U.S. intelligence agencies unprecedented power. He also co-wrote the USA Freedom Act, which aims to rein in that power. (Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press)

 

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4127 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of SiliconValley.com, the Mercury News tech website. Email: lsumagaysay@bayareanewsgroup.com