Congress could gut funds for NSA bulk searches

Amendment up for vote in Congress would forbid the NSA to use its funds to conduct warrantless data collection on U.S. citizens

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) is drawing attention to an amendment about to be voted on that would forbid the use of appropriated funds for conducting warrantless electronic searches on U.S. citizens. This would make it difficult for the National Security Agency to use its copious funding -- estimated by the Washington Post to be around $52.6 billion annually -- to support such surveillance programs.

Though the amendment to House Resolution 4870, the 2015 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, is designed to make it harder to conduct arbitrary data collection on U.S. citizens, it doesn't make such searches flat-out impossible. It specifically allows searches for corporations, people who are the subject of an order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or situations where "the life or safety of such United States person is threatened and the information is sought for the purpose of assisting that person" -- such as a missing-persons situation.

The exception for corporations is likely to fuel further debate about just how much impact the revelations of NSA's spying programs have had on public cloud business in the United States. Amazon's CTO claims there has been virtually no detectable impact, with marked growth of non-U.S. business for Amazon's U.S.-based cloud services. But Cisco's CEO and folks at HP have both claimed revelations of the NSA's spying programs have hurt business, and word of NSA programs to intercept and bug U.S.-made router hardware has also been greeted with unease and dismay.

InfoWorld's Bill Snyder took a look at the issue and found that the scare-off from NSA spying generally amounted to two issues: foreign customers picking non-U.S. cloud providers, and a general emphasis on keeping data encrypted and closer to the chest. The irony of the spying scandals is that it might end up driving more and better adoption of security by enterprises than many other initiatives have. At the very least, it's given tech luminaries like Microsoft and Facebook the nerve to say no to the NSA.

Worries had grown about the abuse of collecting telecommunications records in bulk after it became clear the NSA had been given carte blanche to store as many phone records as it liked. Last year, a similar amendment was proposed to specifically defund the bulk collection of phone records and was signed into law. President Obama also took steps to ensure the scope of any collected data was limited and the data would be kept with the telecommunications carriers themselves for up to 18 months.

Advocates for the NSA's spycraft stress both its fundamental legality and its utility. U.S. General Keith Alexander, former director of the NSA, has defended the NSA's surveillance programs and insisted that the scope of the programs in question are deliberately narrow, limited only to people suspected of espionage or acts of terrorism.

Alexander also stated that obtaining court orders for such surveillance is not "rubber-stamped" and internal checks exist to prevent misuse by agency employees. A federal judge has also ruled that the bulk phone collection program was not illegal, had not been abused except in the most incidental way, and had provided the NSA with the ability to garner insights into enemy behaviors that it otherwise wouldn't have.

In the meantime, the EFF has created a website to draw attention to the vote, ShutTheBackDoor.net, outfitted with tools to encourage people to contact their representatives -- and not by email, but by phone.

This story, "Congress could gut funds for NSA bulk searches," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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