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Civil Liberties Groups Decry Neutering of NSA Reform Bill

Following a gutting from House leaders, groups say USA Freedom Act has strayed too far from initial goal to end bulk spying.

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo: Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

Civil liberties organizations say they can no longer support a National Security Agency reform bill—the USA Freedom Act—after the House significantly weakened it to allow for the possibility of continued bulk surveillance, following pressure from the Obama administration.

The amendments followed negotiations and talks between the Obama administration and House leaders.

"[W]e cannot in good conscience support this weakened version of the bill, where key reforms—especially those intended to end bulk collection and increase transparency—have been substantially watered down," said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, in a statement released Tuesday.

"The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn't achieve the goal of ending mass spying," the organization declared in a statement.

The new version of the bill (pdf) includes a more expansive definition of the "specific selection term," which determines who the government is allowed to spy on by compelling phone companies to turn over their records.

"Less than a week ago, the definition was simply 'a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account,'" the EFF explains. "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.'"


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“Put another way, it may ban ‘bulk’ collection of all records of a particular kind, but still allow for ‘bulky’ collection impacting the privacy of millions of people,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute, in a statement.

The new bill also lowers the bar on requirements for what the telecom industry must report to the public about records requests from the government.

"Those transparency reporting provisions have been weakened to the point that they are almost identical to what the Justice Department has already agreed to let the companies report," said Bankston.

"The bill has been watered down far, far down even from the compromise that was struck when the bill was voted out of committee," said Patrick Toomey of the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the Huffington Post. "While it represents a slight improvement from the status quo, it isn't the reform bill that Americans deserve."

The now "watered down" USA Freedom Act heads to the House floor this week.

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