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House committee unanimously passes phone surveillance reform bill

House committee unanimously passes phone surveillance reform bill

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The House Judiciary Committee has approved an amended version of the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill meant to end the mass collection of American phone records. In a unanimous vote of 32-0, the committee sent the bill to the House floor after hours of debate concerning surveillance and the limits of the NSA's power. If passed, it will explicitly prohibit intelligence agencies from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect data en masse, instead requiring them to establish reasonable suspicion before getting a warrant and gathering data from specific queries. The USA FREEDOM Act, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and cosponsored by 149 Congress members, was one of many bills brought over the past year, after the first leaked documents from Edward Snowden began to reveal the scope of NSA spying. It's gained wide bipartisan support through compromise — but those compromises have caused concern among proponents of limiting surveillance.

The USA FREEDOM Act has largely been considered the most promising reform bill in the House or Senate. It tightens the limits of the Patriot Act, requiring court approval before surveillance operatives collect information. For years, single court orders have authorized collecting millions of call records at a time, all of which are stored in NSA databases for five years. But under pressure from critics, President Barack Obama promised to phase out the database system, leaving records in the hands of phone companies, who would hold them for the 18 months that the FCC already requires. This bill would make this change official, and so far, it's garnered more support than a competing bill from the House Intelligence Committee, which would only ask courts to review collection after it's already happened.

The amendment stripped out bans on 'back door searches'

But shortly before the bill was brought to committee, an amendment stripped out some provisions that were widely supported by privacy advocates. While the bill still prohibited bulk record collection, it weakened language barring "back door searches" in which operatives get around a ban on specifically looking up communications from US citizens by sifting through foreign communications to find them indirectly. It also loosened transparency rules and restrictions on national security letters, and analysts were given the power to collect call data up to two "hops" away from a specific target, potentially allowing one search to link to millions of other people. These compromises made the bill more widely palatable, and in today's debate, Sensenbrenner urged critics "not to make the perfect the enemy of the good."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), one of the staunchest reform advocates, attempted to resurrect the back door search ban included in the original bill. The committee, largely guided by Sensenbrenner's philosophy, shot down the amendment, along with several more proposals that would have raised the bar for searches and made the bill's language more specific. In a more successful move, Rep. Linda DelBene (D-WA) was able to reinstate transparency rules that make it easier for companies to report the number of surveillance requests they receive. Otherwise, the bill remains largely the compromise that was announced earlier this week. That has worried worried reform proponents like the ACLU, but they've tended to grant it provisional support, if only because it's a concrete step towards change. "The committee's actions are a step towards bringing the government's surveillance regime in line with the Constitution, even as more reforms are needed," said the ACLU's Laura Murphy in a statement. Before the vote, Kevin Bankston of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute said he was "incredibly disappointed" with the removal of back door search provisions, but he remained supportive of the bill as a whole.

The bill's markup comes just one day before the Intelligence Committee considers its own option, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act. Its proposal is seen as the only real competition, but the Intelligence Committee has now said it will also mark up the USA FREEDOM Act at the same time; the Senate will also need to consider its own version of the bill. Supporters of reform, meanwhile, have urged Congress to consider greater privacy reforms, focusing particularly on rules that allow the NSA to collect the contents of emails and other online communications.