The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill that would limit the National Security Agency's bulk collection of domestic phone records, even as several civil liberties and tech groups withdrew their support after last-minute changes.
The amended version of the USA Freedom Act, approved by a 303-121 vote in the House Thursday, continues to give the NSA authority to collect telephone and other records from large groups of people because of a change in the definition of the search targets allowed, critics said.
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Still, backers of the legislation said it will end the NSA's practice of collecting nearly all U.S. telephone records. The bill represents a huge step forward and would require the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to publish its major surveillance opinions, supporters said.
The amended bill, supported by President Barack Obama's administration, is not perfect, many supporters said, but is better than nothing. The amended bill represents a "first step, not a final step" in congressional efforts reform U.S. surveillance programs, said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and vocal critic of the NSA phone records program.
"The days of the NSA indiscriminately vacuuming up more data than it can store will end with the USA Freedom Act," Sensenbrenner said. "In the post-Freedom Act world, we have turned the tables on the NSA and can say to them, 'we are watching you.'"
The House bill now heads to the Senate, where it could be further amended. Critics of the House bill said they will fight for stronger privacy protections in the Senate.
Opponents of the bill argued the amended version would allow the NSA to target wide groups of people with its surveillance. The result of the changes is a bill "that will not end bulk collection, regretfully," said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. "Regrettably, we have learned that if we leave any ambiguity in law, the intelligence agencies will run a truck right through that ambiguity."
The House Rules Committee made changes to the USA Freedom Act Tuesday after two other committees had approved an older version backed by several tech and civil liberties groups. After the changes, Facebook, Google, Apple, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups withdrew their support.
Many of the changes to the bill came out of concerns from U.S. national security officials, said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "We knew that both our national security and civil liberties were at stake in the debate, but that both could be protected," he said during a press conference.
One of the major changes to the bill is an expended 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," makes the new definition "incredibly more expansive than previous definitions," the EFF said in a blog post.