Cyber bills embolden the NSA, lawmakers warned

Congressional offices are being flooded with competing letters ahead of nearing votes on major cybersecurity legislation.

Privacy advocates took their turn late Monday, sending every House member and every senator a letter urging a “no” vote on companion bills from the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

The House is set for a Wednesday vote on the bill, with the Senate expected to follow in the coming weeks.

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Both measures would give companies liability protections when sharing cyber threat data with the government.

But they wouldn't restrict sensitive data from getting quickly to the intelligence community, warned the coalition of privacy groups, civil liberties organizations and security experts who signed the letter.

The two bills, the letters say, “would significantly increase the National Security Agency’s (NSA) access to personal information, and authorize the federal government to use that information for a myriad of purposes unrelated to cybersecurity.”

Backers of the efforts argue that exchanging more data will give government and industry a better understanding of hackers’ methods, allowing them to bolster faltering cyber defenses.

They maintain that companies will not hand over the necessary data without protection from shareholder lawsuits and regulatory action.

Major industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have previously written lawmakers urging swift passage of the cyber measures, which have broad, bipartisan backing.

Government officials and possibly even the once-skeptical White House also favor the language. But privacy advocates are trying to get Congress to pump the breaks at the last minute.

The Edward Snowden disclosures revealing secret surveillance programs “demonstrates the potential for government overreach, particularly when statutory language is broad or ambiguous,” the letter said.

Many have urged Congress to act on legislation to rein in the NSA’s authority before moving on a cyber bill.

House lawmakers are expected to fast-track such a bill this week, but it won’t get through before a Wednesday vote on the House Intelligence bill.

The Senate Intel offering doesn’t have a set timeline; some analysts believe the upper chamber might deal with an NSA bill before voting on its cyber bill.