House eyes new chance to reform surveillance

House eyes new chance to reform surveillance
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The House is gearing up to take a new stab at reforming U.S. surveillance powers, after overwhelmingly passing similar measures in the past but failing to get them signed into law.

The moves, introduced as an amendment to the annual Defense appropriations bill, are expected to be considered on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, and could reinforce the sense of many lawmakers on Capitol Hill that federal surveillance reform remains unfinished.

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The amendment “enjoys overwhelming, bipartisan support,” 21 advocacy groups wrote in a letter to Capitol Hill on Wednesday urging House lawmakers' support.

“It addresses two critical issues necessary for the protection of constitutional principles and the digital economy,” wrote the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks and X-Lab.

The amendment would close what critics call the “backdoor search loophole” in current law, which federal intelligence agencies have used to collect information about Americans through a law designed to target foreigners.

The law, Section 702 of a 2008 update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, authorizes the National Security Agency’s (NSA) PRISM and Upstream collection activities, and is aimed at foreign spies, terrorists and other targets. But Americans’ information can be “incidentally” caught up in the collection, and intelligence officials have acknowledged that they have used “U.S. person identifiers” to search through that data. 

The House amendment, from Reps. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieThe real winner of the 2018 midterms: individual liberty How Republicans who voted against ObamaCare repeal fared in midterms Trump deals with Saudis may be worth much less than 0 billion MORE (R-Ky.) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenBipartisan group of lawmakers offer bill to provide certainty following online sales tax ruling Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Live coverage: Tensions mount as Rosenstein grilled by GOP MORE (D-Calif.), would require the government to obtain a warrant before searching government databases for information about Americans.

It would also prohibit the government from requiring companies to build in security vulnerabilities to their products, in order to secure the government’s access. Concern about the government’s ability to bypass security protections have mounted in recent months, following the FBI’s standoff with Apple over an iPhone used by a killer during the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack.

Identical amendments have passed overwhelmingly in 2015 and 2014, but were stripped out before the funding bill reached President Obama’s desk.

The amount of support for the new amendment could be particularly instructive for Capitol Hill as it begins the process of evaluating whether to reauthorize the law allowing for the NSA collection programs.

Section 702 is not up for renewal until the end of 2017, but lawmakers on both sides are already gearing up for a fight.