By Elizabeth Holland
An amendment to the Fiscal Year 2015 Defense Appropriations bill that would prohibit the National Security Agency (NSA)’s ability to perform “backdoor” searches passed the House late Thursday on a vote of 292-123. The measure closes the loophole in the FISA Amendments Act that has enabled the search of government databases for information on U.S. citizens without a warrant. Under the amendment, the NSA cannot use its funds to search that database specifically for a U.S. target. The NSA and Central Intelligence Agency are further barred from requiring device manufacturers to install technologies that create “backdoors” in their devices.
The successful vote—in many ways a surprise given the recent politicking over the USA FREEDOM Act in the House—represents the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to curtail the controversial practices of the NSA revealed by Edward Snowden last year. A similar amendment to Fiscal Year 2014 Defense Appropriations to end the NSA’s phone records collection program was offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) last August but failed by a narrow 205-217 margin.
AALL continues to focus on opportunities to limit NSA surveillance by improving the House-passed USA FREEDOM Act as it is considered in the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. Earlier this week, AALL joined a coalition of privacy advocates on a letter to Senate and Committee leadership that “plainly express[es] our position that, unless the version of the USA FREEDOM Act that the Senate considers contains substantial improvements over the House-passed version, we will be forced to oppose the bill that so many of us previously worked to advance.” The letter suggests a number of necessary fixes to the bill, including changes to the specific selection term and greater transparency provisions. Additionally, AALL has urged the Administration not to renew the bulk telephony metadata program under a Section 215 order which expires today.
We are hopeful that Thursday’s House vote will send a clear signal to Senate leaders and members of the Obama Administration that they must approve real privacy reforms to the NSA’s surveillance practices.