The House passed the USA FREEDOM bill on Thursday morning by a vote of 303 to 121. The measure was designed to put a check on government surveillance efforts. Except there's just one thing: many of the legislators and groups who support NSA reform efforts backed away from the proposal after it was stripped of most of its meatiest bits just before today's vote.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's original bill attracted widespread support — from the tech industry, from Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks, and, often with some caveats, from privacy reform advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the tone turned from optimism to despair earlier this week after House leadership amended the measure in a few critical ways. Digital rights group Access explained what those changes were in a Tuesday statement rescinding their support for the measure. The amended bill, they wrote, undermines the House's attempt to reform NSA practices by:
- introducing ambiguity into the definition of the term “specific selection term,” which was key to the bill’s proposal to end bulk collection
- removing a provision banning reverse targeting of communications of U.S. persons
- giving the intelligence community more internal control over declassification review
- appearing to condone the NSA’s practice of reviewing the content of international communications about targeted individuals, and
- watering down transparency reporting permissions for communications companies and services
That first one, the redefinition of "specific selection term," is especially concerning for advocates. That term basically defines who and what the NSA can spy on. How specifically that term is defined is essential to limiting that power. As the EFF wrote, "the new definition is incredibly more expansive than previous definitions," and includes non-limiting language like "such as," which could give the NSA and the court that regulates it totally legal ways to talk around the intent of the measure.