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Critics of the CLOUD Act " are rightfully pointing out that it jettisons current human rights protections in favor of vague standards that could gut individual rights." (Photo: Electoric Frontier Foundation)

Uproar After Congress Sneaks Attack on Digital Privacy Rights Into Omnibus Spending Bill

Attaching it to massive spending deal, lawmakers rush through controversial bill that allows law enforcement to hand over personal data without a warrant

Jessica Corbett

Buried in the 2,232-page omnibus spending bill that the U.S. House passed Thursday is a piece of legislation that digital privacy advocates warn "expands American and foreign law enforcement's ability to target and access people's data across international borders."

The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data or CLOUD Act (S. 2383 and H.R. 4943) would add an official provision for U.S. law enforcement to access "the contents of a wire or electronic communication and any record or other information" for people all across the globe, regardless of where they live and what that nation's privacy laws dictate. It would also create a "backdoor" into Americans' data, enabling the U.S. government to bypass its citizens' Fourth Amendment rights to access and even use their data.

Despite having no formal debate on the legislation and a flurry of urgent warnings early in the week about its attack on digital privacy rights and civil liberties, federal lawmakers revealed on Wednesday that their $1.3 trillion dollar spending bill (pdf) would include the CLOUD Act.

As the spending bill heads to the Senate, which must pass it by the end of Friday to avert another government shutdown, digital privacy and civil liberties groups are urging senators to oppose the measure, warning that it could endanger activists, journalists, and others.

"The Department of Justice and major tech companies are actively supporting the bill, erroneously suggesting it will advance consumer rights," ACLU legislative counsel Neem Singh Guliani noted in an op-ed for The Hill this week. "Meanwhile, privacy and human rights organizations that have opposed the bill are rightfully pointing out that it jettisons current human rights protections in favor of vague standards that could gut individual rights."

"Congress should reject the CLOUD Act because it fails to protect human rights or Americans' privacy. But, even more, they should reject the CLOUD Act because it gives up their constitutional role, and gives far too much power to the attorney general, the secretary of state, the president, and foreign governments," he declared.

The CLOUD Act, as Guliani explained, gives "Attorney General Jeff Sessions and presumptive Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extensive and nearly unchecked power over global digital privacy rights" by empowering them "to enter into data exchange agreements with foreign governments without congressional approval." Tweeting on Wednesday, the ACLU posed a related question to Americans:


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