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House approves weakened bill to limit NSA bulk collection

Grant Gross | May 23, 2014
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 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.

 

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