Ban on secret backdoor searches of American’s data passes the House (again)

National Security Agency headquarters. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, Sunlight and a bipartisan group of 26 other organizations — including the ACLU, Demand Progress and FreedomWorks — called on the House of Representatives to support an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill that would end secret, warrantless surveillance on Americans’ information. I’m happy to announce that our allies on the Hill — in particular Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and the other lawmakers who supported ambitious reforms like this when people thought they were impossible — have succeeded so far: The amendment passed the House, just as it did last year.

As we explain in the letter:

First, the amendment would defund warrantless government searches of the database of information collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 using U.S. person identifiers, absent certain circumstances. Although Section 702 prohibits the government from intentionally targeting the communications of U.S. persons, it does not explicitly restrict deliberately querying communications of Americans that were “inadvertently” or “incidentally” collected under Section 702. Moreover, following an apparent change in the NSA’s internal practices in 2011, the NSA now is explicitly permitted under certain circumstances to conduct searches using U.S. person names and identifiers without a warrant. In March, James Clapper, the Director of the Office of National Intelligence, confirmed in a letter to Senator Wyden that such warrantless queries of U.S. person communications are being conducted.

Second, the amendment would prohibit the use of appropriated funds to require or request that United States persons and entities build security vulnerabilities into their products or services in order to facilitate government surveillance, except as provided for by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

The letter also specifically called for the House, in particular leadership, to ensure that this amendment stays in the bill.

This amendment is the same as one that passed last year with an overwhelming 293 votes. But that doesn’t mean this is a sure bet; it’s incumbent on anyone who cares about this issue to reach out to their lawmakers and make their voices heard as soon as possible. Indeed, after passing last year with 293 votes, it was stripped out of the omnibus that ultimately became law.

This is a step in the right direction for meaningful surveillance reform — let’s make sure this bipartisan effort doesn’t fail again.