NSA Surveillance Reform Bill Passes House to Mixed Reaction

Civil libertarians hoped the legislation would prevent indiscriminate collection of volumes of private communications. But now they say it was amended with weaker language.

surveillance reform bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed long-sought-after communications surveillance reform legislation on May 22, but last-minute changes to the bill had one-time supporters criticizing it as weak.

The bill (H.R. 3361), also known as the USA Freedom Act, amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, adding restrictions on the use of FISA by the National Security Agency to prevent the indiscriminate collection the phone records and other communications of U.S. citizens. Yet changes to the legislation earlier in the week caused many of the original supporters of the legislation to back away from supporting the bill.

Critics fear that changes to the definitions of what types of records can be targeted continue to leave open the possibility of mass surveillance.

"I am troubled by the changes that were made to the bill behind closed doors that stripped key protections and open the door to bulk collection," U.S. Representative Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., a ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. "The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found that the NSA's bulk collection of metadata is illegal and called for it to be stopped."

Civil liberties groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spoke out against the amendments to the bill. On May 20, the EFF released an analysis that took issue with the amended bill's modified definitions of what information could be targeted as well as the lack of reform to a second section of FISA, Section 702, which covers intelligence collection about foreign individuals outside the United States. Finally, the EFF and other groups had called for a special advocate to be present during FISA Court hearings that could represent the interests of the people of the United States.

The EFF's analysis took exception to the relaxing of the definition of the terms that limit the NSA's collection.

"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,'" the analysis stated. "Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government's history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can't be relied on to protect our freedoms."

"Earlier today, House Leadership reached an agreement to amend the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act in ways that severely weaken the bill, potentially allowing bulk surveillance of records to continue. The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn't achieve the goal of ending mass spying.

The ACLU also criticized the changes, but welcomed legislation that moves the nation ahead with needed surveillance reforms.

"While far from perfect, this bill is an unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control NSA," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, said. "While we share the concerns of many—including members of both parties who rightly believe the bill does not go far enough—without it we would be left with no reform at all, or worse, a House Intelligence Committee bill that would have cemented bulk collection of Americans' communications into law."

The critics of the legislation, such as the ACLU and EFF, pledged to work to modify the bill as it is considered in the Senate.

"With the passage of this measure, I now call on the Senate to work expeditiously and approve legislation that leaves no room for bulk collection to continue," Representative Thompson said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...