US tech firms refuse to back bill reforming NSA after White House changes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 11:40pm

A group of technology companies, including Facebook, Google and Apple have withdrawn their support from legislation ending the National Security Agency's mass collection of Americans' records, after the White House requested last-minute changes that critics say would water down its protections.

The USA Freedom Act had been significantly watered down and undermined a recent deal between the intelligence and judiciary committees, civil liberties advocates said.

The amended language had "moved in the wrong direction", said the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others.

"The latest draft opens up an unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of internet users' data," it said.

But US officials said the revised bill, which was scheduled for a floor vote later yesterday, still honoured the deal crafted by lawmakers two weeks ago to protect privacy and the intelligence community's ability to detect terrorist attacks. They said it ended the NSA's holding of hundreds of billions of phone records.

The White House is expected to publicly endorse the revision this week.

"The amended bill successfully addresses the concerns that were raised about NSA surveillance, ends bulk collections and increases transparency," said a House Republican aide.

"We view it as a victory for privacy, and while we would like to have had a stronger bill, we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

The legislation was conceived last year in the wake of disclosures by Edward Snowden of widespread NSA surveillance. It promised not just to end the NSA's mass collection of Americans' phone call detail records but ban other forms of domestic bulk collection. It would bar the NSA from amassing a database of all Americans' phone records, instead allowing the agency to request records from the phone companies if the records related to an agent of a foreign power.

But changes worked out among the committees, the administration and House leadership have alarmed privacy advocates. They say that by changing the language governing how agencies may collect information, ambiguity has been introduced that opens the door to large-scale collection.

"There's nothing in this bill that seems to prohibit the government from saying that they want all of the e-mail records in Salt Lake City," Centre for Democracy and Technology senior counsel Harley Geiger said. "The government has a track record of creatively exploiting ambiguity in the law."

The White House said the definition was too narrow and would impede even routine investigations. "There was no effort to soften the ban on bulk collection," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, McClatchy-Tribune