Fight Against 'Big Brother' Heats Up as CISA Bill Advances in Senate

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Fight Against 'Big Brother' Heats Up as CISA Bill Advances in Senate

Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act is advancing in the Senate thanks to the aggressive push of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

"Congress may be stuck in 1984, but Internet users won’t be fooled," said Evan Greer of Fight for the Future. (Photo:Free Press/flickr/cc)

"Congress may be stuck in 1984, but Internet users won’t be fooled," said Evan Greer of Fight for the Future. (Photo:Free Press/flickr/cc)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is pressing for the swift passage of a controversial pro-surveillance bill known as the the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), raising the ire of civil liberties campaigners who are vowing to escalate their efforts to defeat the measure.

Speaking from the Senate floor on Tuesday, McConnell declared: "With cooperation, we can pass the bipartisan bill this week." The statement came shortly after he filed cloture on the motion to advance CISA, which was previously stalled. McConnell's move means that a debate could come as early as Wednesday, and a vote as soon as Thursday.

Described in the Guardian as "the latest in a series of failed attempts to reform cybersecurity," CISA is framed by its backers as a tool to prevent cybersecurity crimes. But critics warn that the legislation, which has been called Patriot Act 2.0, would expand government and corporate cooperation on surveillance while dramatically diminishing online privacy. A long list of civil society organizations and scholars have expressed profound concerns about the legislation.

As ACLU legislative assistant Nathaniel Turner recently explained:

CISA's vague language and expansive definitions will give the government new ways to collect and use the personal information and communications of innocent Americans, all without a warrant or any review by an independent court or overseer. CISA would allow companies to share information with the government relating to a “cybersecurity threat,” a term defined so broadly in the bill that it could include huge swaths of emails and text messages.  The handover of user information under CISA would be permitted even if otherwise prohibited by existing data privacy laws, like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The law would also give companies broad legal protections even if they improperly share consumer data.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the information shared by companies would automatically be forwarded to numerous intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies, including the NSA and FBI. 

A so-called manager's amendment, referring to a package of amendments agreed to by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, was released at the end of July but fails to address the biggest problems with the legislation, say critics.

"The manager’s amendment proposed does nothing to address the fundamentally flawed logic behind CISA. It’s clearly intended to appease privacy concerns with surface level changes while keeping keeping the most egregious parts of CISA intact," declared Evan Greer, Fight for the Future campaign director, on Tuesday.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has been a key voice opposing the measure, agreed. "The managers' amendment does not fix the provision of this bill that will allow private companies to hand large volumes of their customers' personal information over to the government with only a cursory review," he said on Monday.

The CISA push is being met with an escalating campaign led by a coalition of civil rights and liberties groups. Last week, a call for opponents of CISA to #FaxBigBrother—to illustrate that Congress is "stuck in [Orwell's] 1984"—generated over six million faxes to Senate offices.

"Congress may be stuck in 1984, but Internet users won’t be fooled," said Greer. "Congress should expect the public outcry to grow ten fold if they if they move to a vote this week without proper debate and discussion about this extremely unpopular legislation."

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