Tech firms make final NSA reform appeal

Tech firms make final NSA reform appeal
© Getty Images

The technology industry is making a vigorous push to reform the nation’s intelligence operations as the fight over the National Security Agency (NSA) comes down to the wire.

After months of negotiations, the Senate will vote Tuesday on whether to move forward with the carefully crafted bill. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The result is decidedly up in the air, and supporters on Monday were furiously making calls and twisting arms to come up with the 60 votes needed to move forward.

“This is a full push for us,” said one tech industry lobbyist working on the issue. “We have definitely blanketed everyone. I’m sure people have heard from us multiple times.”

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' 20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Dems prep for Mueller report's release MORE’s (D-Vt.) USA Freedom Act would end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records in the U.S. and give tech companies more ways to disclose the information they hand over to the government. It would also add a team of privacy advocates to the federal court that oversees intelligence agencies.

“This is the best opportunity to get this done, and this is something that is really important for the U.S. industry in terms of being able to have clear rules of the road of how we handle requests from the government and how we operate in a global marketplace,” said Andy Halataei, the senior vice president of governmental affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council. 

Leahy’s bill has a list of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, and supporters expect most Democrats to vote to advance it.

Democrats including Sens. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDenver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' Gardner gets latest Democratic challenge from former state senator Setting the record straight about No Labels MORE (Colo.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress can retire the retirement crisis Dems accuse White House of caving to Trump's 'ego' on Russian meddling The difference between good and bad tax reform MORE (Ore.) might want the bill to go further to protect privacy, while Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinBiden says he will run for president in 2020: 'We have to remember who we are' Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary Dems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions MORE (Calif.) is expected to offer amendments to address security concerns. But most of these Democrats are unlikely to block the bill at this point.

On the Republican side, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke to give commencement address at Texas's oldest black college Cornyn campaign, Patton Oswalt trade jabs over comedian's support for Senate candidate MJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid MORE (R-Texas), a potential 2016 presidential nominee who has an outsized voice with conservatives, is one of the three Republican co-sponsors.

But Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem super PAC campaign urges Republicans to back impeachment Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Trump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen MORE (R-Ky.), another possible 2016 contender, opposes the bill because he says it does not go far enough. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissRepublicans say Democrats holding up disaster relief as 'Sandy payback' Ex-House Intel chair: Intel panel is wrong forum to investigate Trump's finances The Hill's Morning Report - Trump budget reignites border security fight MORE (R-Ga.), on the other hand, thinks it needs to be dialed down.

If the USA Freedom Act does move forward, it still faces a gauntlet of possible amendments that could shake the coalition of tech firms, privacy groups and lawmakers who have signed on in support. The amendment process could push a vote on final passage into December. 

A bill approved by the Senate also would have to be reconciled with House legislation, another potential hurdle.

The House approved a version of the USA Freedom Act in May. Back-room changes on the way to the floor made it unpalatable to many tech companies and privacy advocates, however, and they eventually pulled their support.

A win in the Senate would make NSA reform the tech industry’s single biggest victory in a Congress marred by legislative defeat.

The sector previously lost major battles to reform the nation’s immigration and patent laws, which executives say are some of the biggest impediments to growing the U.S. tech industry.

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, however, have had a more immediately negative effect on business.

Reports about the U.S. spying programs, and the cooperation of companies legally bound to turn over records to the NSA, have tarnished the image of the U.S. tech sector abroad. By 2016, U.S. firms could lose as much as $180 billion, according to analysis by Forrester Research, a consulting firm. 

“What occurred was a loss of trust between America and other countries,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said earlier this year.

In response to the seeming inaction in Congress since Snowden’s first revelations last summer, companies have adopted additional security and privacy policies to reassure users that they are on their side. New iPhone and Android devices, for instance, are automatically encrypted to keep users’ data automatically locked from both hackers and the police.

The trend has caused a standoff between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration that will likely continue to escalate unless lawmakers can pass spying reform in the coming weeks.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, advocates have been working hard to win support for the bill.

The Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other industry giants, wrote an open letter on Monday urging lawmakers to “send a strong message of change to the world.”

Executives at the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association penned a joint op-ed in The Washington Times over the weekend pushing lawmakers to act.

If the bill fails, Congress will have to get back to the drawing board in the first few months of 2015.

The portion of the Patriot Act authorizing the NSA’s phone records collection program expires June 1, giving lawmakers precious few weeks to write and pass a reauthorization bill.

Many critics have said they will refuse to vote for a blanket reauthorization without changes, which could kill the program entirely. Intelligence officials say that would be a disastrous outcome. 

“[O]ur intelligence officials are asking for operational certainty.” Leahy said in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “Likewise, the American people are asking us to protect their privacy,” 

“It is time to show the American people that Congress is about more than talking points, sound bites, and the next campaign,” he added.