Privacy groups pressure Senate on NSA

Dozens of civil liberties groups are putting pressure on the Senate to move forward with a bill to rein in the National Security Agency.

More than 40 groups wrote a letter to Senate leaders on Thursday praising the “important first step” that would be taken if Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) USA Freedom Act were passed in coming months, even while noting that “further reform will still be needed.”

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The bill, which Leahy released earlier this summer after months of negotiations with lawmakers and the Obama administration, would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — the most controversial program revealed by Edward Snowden last year.

“Based on these important improvements, a wide range of major technology companies and public interest groups spanning the political spectrum is eager for Congress to pass this legislation swiftly and without weakening the bill,” wrote the 43 groups, including the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, American Civil Liberties Union and the Constitution Project.

The bill is a top priority for Leahy this fall. His effort was given a boost this week, when Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called it a “reasonable compromise” that deserves support.

In their letter, the privacy groups warned senators not to add any language to the legislation that forced phone companies to hold onto subscribers’ data longer than they currently do.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has expressed an interest in those kinds of mandates, but privacy groups and tech companies have firmly rejected the idea.

The USA Freedom Act should also have priority over a cybersecurity bill that others are pushing, they added, which would make it easier for companies and government agencies to share information about possible threats with each other — an ability that cyber hawks say is critical to closing gaps in data security.

However, the bill, called the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) would allow people’s personal information to “be immediately and automatically disseminated to the NSA and a host of other government agencies,” the groups wrote, without requiring efforts to remove identifying data.

“The Senate cannot seriously consider controversial information-sharing legislation such as CISA without first completing the pressing unfinished business of passing meaningful surveillance reform,” they wrote.

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