Senators question need to rein in NSA surveillance

Several senators say they oppose reform legislation, even though many advocates see it as too weak

By , IDG News Service |  Internet

The House of Representatives passed a watered-down version of the USA Freedom Act, approved by Obama's administration, in May despite concerns from privacy advocates that it would allow the NSA to continue to collect business records under broad categories.

The CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and other tech companies urged senators to narrow the definition of records the NSA could search.

"Unfortunately, the version that just passed the House of Representatives could permit bulk collection of Internet 'metadata,' something that the Administration and Congress said they intended to end," the tech CEOs said in a letter to senators Thursday.

Several former backers of the USA Freedom Act, including some of its original sponsors, withdrew their support for the bill after lawmakers made changes to it, advocated by the Obama administration, in the week leading up to the May 22 House vote.

A major change to the bill before the House vote was an expanded definition of a 'specific selection term" that the NSA must use to target its searches. The amended version of the bill allows the NSA to target things such as a "person, entity, accounts, address, or device," instead of, in the original language, a "person, entity, or account."

The words "address" and "device" in the new language, as well as the open-ended term "such as," would allow the NSA to target wide groups of people, critics have said. The new version of the bill would allow the NSA to target an entire state, an entire phone network or an entire email provider, Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told senators.

Still, several members of the intelligence committee, Republicans and Democrats, questioned the need for even the watered-down bill.

Leaks by Snowden have led to the "continual demonization" of the NSA, said Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, where the NSA is headquartered. People working at the NSA "keep America safe," she said.

Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, called the proposed NSA reform "unnecessary and unpredictable." The USA Freedom Act "might make the public feel better," but would hurt national security. he said.

The NSA has trained people watching over the data the agency collects, while the House bill would create a new program that has the telecom carriers holding onto the phone records, he said.

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