Technology

Tech Industry Keeps Pressure on Congress for NSA Surveillance Changes

By / Jun 6, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A year after Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. spy agency’s bulk collection of phone and internet user data, Congress is working on legislation to rein in those practices. Tech groups are focusing their lobbying efforts on the Senate, saying a measure the House passed is too watered down.

A year ago this week, a pair of shocking revelations about the federal government’s surveillance capabilities came to light.

The double-whammy of reports exposing the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection from phone calls and internet connections became one of the year’s biggest stories. It also introduced the world to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked the information on the spy agency’s surveillance to journalists and continues to evoke strong opinions on whether he’s a traitor or a hero.

The disclosures also kick-started a tech industry lobbying effort that continues as a bill aiming to roll back the NSA collection program moves through Congress. Here’s the latest:

A coalition takes shape: Major tech companies that rely on user data—including AOL, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo—are pushing the Senate to strengthen the proposed USA Freedom Act, a bill designed to limit the NSA’s mass collection activities. In an open letter to senators signed by the CEO of each company and released Thursday, they argued the House version of the bill included too many loopholes: The measure “could permit bulk collection of internet ‘metadata’ (e.g. who you email and who emails you), something that the administration and Congress said they intended to end,” the letter stated. “Moreover, while the House bill permits some transparency, it is critical to our customers that the bill allow companies to provide even greater detail about the number and type of government requests they receive for customer information.” Similarly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said it “cannot support a bill that doesn’t achieve the goal of ending mass spying.”

Compliance concerns: Also on Thursday, Dean Garfield, CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, echoed concerns about the House bill in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, arguing that it leaves too much up in the air for technology firms that must comply with an NSA data request. “Perhaps the most critical language in the bill is what serves as the basis for a production order with which a company must comply,” Garfield said in prepared comments [PDF]. “Defined in the bill as the ‘specific selection term,’ this term is purportedly designed to end bulk collection and require that an order to produce information be appropriately targeted. But as currently drafted, the definition is open-ended, thus the list—and the scope—of potential section terms is not meaningfully limited.”

Tech firms have had a tough go of it on the lobbying and regulatory front in recent weeks. A highly touted patent reform bill fell off the Senate Judiciary Committee’s agenda, and the Federal Communications Commission approved a preliminary net neutrality proposal that would allow service providers to create a so-called “fast lane.” Tech companies have voiced several concerns about that proposal.

And as Politico notes, the industry’s efforts on immigration reform remain at a standstill, despite being launched with much fanfare last year.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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