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

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.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags telecommunicationJohn ConyersJim SensenbrennerU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance CourtU.S. National Security AgencylegislationBarack ObamaprivacyElectronic Frontier FoundationBob GoodlatteFacebookZoe LofgrenGooglesecurityU.S. House of RepresentativesCenter for Democracy and TechnologygovernmentRush Holt

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?