Privacy groups warn of ‘dangerous’ edit to cyber bill

Privacy advocates and security specialists are raising red flags about a potential “dangerous” amendment to the cyber bill currently under debate in the Senate.

The upper chamber on Tuesday took up the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), a bill that would encourage businesses to share more data with the government on cyber threats.

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Numerous lawmakers have been scrambling to edit the bill, seeking to either clarify its language or to attach long-desired bills.

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseRosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Federal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in MORE (D-R.I.) is pushing an amendment that he argues would give law enforcement more tools to fight hackers. It’s one of 22 provisions that Senate leaders have agreed to consider during the CISA debate.

The add-on would expand provisions within the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a much-maligned law that makes it illegal to access protected computers and networks.

Whitehouse’s update would also let prosecutors seek up to 20 years of prison time for individuals who harm a computer connected to “critical infrastructure.”

The goal, Whitehouse says, is to help law enforcement crackdown on botnets, or armies of computers that have been remotely co-opted by hackers to launch a barrage of cyberattacks, often unknown to the computer’s user.

Botnets, Whitehouse said recently, “are a significant threat to the more than 100 million Americans who bank online.”

But civil liberties groups and security experts are pushing back. They believe the amendment could have a stultifying effect on legitimate computer security research and allow the government to punish low-level computer crimes with outsized sentences.

“The Whitehouse amendment fails to address ambiguity in current law that has led to the use of the CFAA to prosecute valuable security research, levy disproportionate penalties, and criminalize ordinary Internet activity,” said an open letter from 19 security specialists and 20 civil liberties and privacy groups.

The debate spilled onto the Senate floor on Tuesday.

When Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump asserts his power over Republicans FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Rubio: Coronavirus conspiracy theories could be used in foreign election misinformation campaigns MORE (R-N.C.), a CISA co-sponsor, asked for unanimous consent to vote on his bill and its amendments on Thursday, leading CISA critic Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care: Hydroxychloroquine ineffective in preventing COVID-19, study finds | WHO to resume hydroxychloroquine clinical research | WHO says no evidence coronavirus is mutating Bipartisan lawmakers press Trump administration to get COVID-19 aid to Medicaid providers USTR launches investigations into countries' digital taxes MORE (D-Ore.) objected.

He specifically cited Whitehouse’s amendment.

"I am especially troubled” by the offering, Wyden said, arguing that it would “sig­ni­fic­antly ex­pand a badly out­dated Com­puter Fraud and Ab­use Act.”

Burr conceded that he “might even share Senator Wyden's concerns.”

As a “nongermane” amendment, Whitehouse’s desired edit would require several unanimous consent agreements to even reach a vote.

“We will work to see if in fact that amendment might be modified in a way that might make it a little more acceptable for the debate and for colleagues to vote on it,” Burr said.

CISA debate is expected to spill into early next week.

— Updated 3:28 p.m.