Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Silicon Valley and privacy advocates are praising newly revamped National Security Agency reform legislation unveiled in the Senate Tuesday, which would put in place some of the strongest restraints on the agency yet.

“If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act 13 years ago,” Leahy said in a statement, according to The Hill. (RELATED: NSA Reform Bill Likely To Surface In Senate Next Week)

“This is an historic opportunity, and I am grateful that the bill has the support of the administration, a wide range of privacy and civil liberties groups, and the technology industry.”

Leahy’s version of the USA FREEDOM Act seeks to replace stronger restrictions over agency search protocols and other reforms favored by tech giants and privacy organizations left on the cutting room floor of the House version, which passed earlier this year.

“We’re pleased to see the Senate propose limits on mass surveillance but more reform is needed to repair the damage inflicted on Internet users and the Web economy,” Mozilla’s global privacy and public policy lead Alex Fowler said in a statement Tuesday. “We hope the Senate will hold firm to the bill’s language and forgo loopholes that would further undermine trust, such as allowing bulk collection through broad ‘selector terms’ that sidestep the problem.” (RELATED: House Passes ‘Gutted’ NSA Surveillance Reform Bill)

The Senate bill follows the House’s lead in ending the agency’s bulk collection of telephone records and storage, and moves the records into the hands of service providers, forcing the agency to obtain specific warrants to search the data. Leahy added additional provisions that require the signals intelligence agency to implement specific terms into search requests. This is in contrast to the House bill, which some argued made it easier for NSA to conduct bulk searches for anyone falling under generic information like ZIP codes. (RELATED: NSA Reform Bill Could Allow The Agency To Spy On More Phone Calls)

“The House ambiguously defined the ‘specific selector term’ — potentially allowing the very type of bulk surveillance that the law was aimed at preventing,” Computer & Communications Industry Association president and CEO Ed Black said in a statement Tuesday. “We appreciate those committed to surveillance reform for wading into the details and offering a Senate bill that would deliver real surveillance reforms. There are other areas or related reform that will need to be addressed in the future, but this is a long-awaited step in the right direction.”

Similar to prior legislation and White House suggestion, the bill also adds privacy and civil liberties advocates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves secret government warrants for searches.

Further transparency measures give service providers and tech companies more freedom in reporting the number and type of government requests for data they must facilitate, and mandates that the government reveal the number of people swept up in searches — particularly if they’re American citizens.

New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute policy director Kevin Bankston said the the new USA FREEDOM Act covers important ground toward restoring the public’s trust in the “Internet industry.”

“Congress also needs to protect the security and popularity of U.S. tech products and services by prohibiting the NSA from weakening them with surveillance ‘back doors,’ a prohibition that the House of Representatives supported by a vote of nearly three to one just last month,” Bankston said in a statement. (RELATED: House Passes Bill To Cut NSA Funding, Close ‘Backdoor’ Surveillance)

A Leahy aide last week said the Senate Judiciary Chairman hopes to get the bill to the floor ahead of Congress’ August recess, which begins next week. Though the bill carries bipartisan support, lawmakers in the upper chamber are already raising concerns that the sweeping reforms could make it more difficult to pass. (RELATED: Senate ‘Within Inches’ Of NSA Reform Ahead Of August Recess)

Leahy’s bill has already gone through the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the senator plans to skip a review process in his own committee in favor a securing a vote prior to the end of this year’s cramped congressional calendar.

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