House votes to further rein in NSA, in sign of continued momentum

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House lawmakers voted to further rein in the nation’s spies on Thursday, in a signal that legislators aren’t yet done reforming surveillance law.

A bipartisan amendment to add new limits to the National Security Agency (NSA) passed 255-174, slightly more than a week after President Obama signed legislation ending the agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. 

While the move appears largely symbolic, given the overwhelming opposition to further spy reforms from leadership in the Senate, it nonetheless makes clear that a significant bloc of lawmakers aren’t settling with that first batch of reforms, called the USA Freedom Act.  

“The USA Freedom Act is not the last word on surveillance reform,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a libertarian-minded lawmaker who co-wrote the new amendment, said in a statement after the vote. “This amendment is a much needed next step as Congress continues to rein in the surveillance state and reassert the Fourth Amendment.”

The measure, which was attached to the fiscal 2016 defense appropriations bill, tackles two separate “backdoors” into people’s communications about which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised alarms.

One provision of the amendment would ban the government from forcing tech companies to build weaknesses into their security systems so that police and federal agents can access people’s data. While the FBI has asserted that it needs that power to go after terrorists and criminals, critics say it would weaken digital security for everybody.

The second part of the amendment would ban the NSA and FBI from accessing Americans’ data without a warrant through a “loophole” in federal law, known as Section 702 of a 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

That law has authorized the NSA’s PRISM and Upstream programs, and gives the government license to pick up foreigners’ emails, chats and other online communications. Americans’ data can be caught up in that net so long as it is “incidental.”

Both areas have been a prime focus for privacy-minded lawmakers, who have hoped that the momentum behind surveillance reform would propel additional reforms. 

“This amendment is the most meaningful step Congress can take to end warrantless bulk collection of U.S. persons' communications and data,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the other lawmaker behind the amendment, said in a statement.

A similar amendment sailed through the House’s version of last year's defense appropriations bill, though it never made it to the legislation that reached the president’s desk. 

Thursday’s vote “shows once again that the House is committed to upholding the Constitution and protecting Americans from warrantless invasions of their privacy,” Lofgren added.