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Congress guts law to restrict NSA spying, civil liberty groups appalled

USA FREEDOM Act? Not so much ...

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Civil liberties groups have reacted angrily after Congress changed key provisions in the USA FREEDOM Act before submitting it to a full vote by the House of Representatives, scheduled for Thursday.

"This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans' private information," said Center for Democracy and Technology President Nuala O'Connor. "The bill now offers only mild reform and goes against the overwhelming support for definitively ending bulk collection."

The USA FREEDOM Act was written by US House Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), lead author of the controversial anti-terror law, the USA PATRIOT Act, in the wake of the revelations from Edward Snowden of mass surveillance by the NSA. Sensenbrenner said the agency had used the USA PATRIOT Act to overstep its bounds, and introduced the legislation to end bulk surveillance and increase oversight.

The bill garnered strong support among civil liberties groups and some politicians for its plans to end bulk surveillance, reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's remit, and modify the allowable use of National Security Letters by the executive.

However, the bill has spent the last few weeks being modified in congressional committees before being submitted for a vote, and many of its most impoirtant supporters are calling foul.

"House Leadership reached an agreement to amend the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act in ways that severely weaken the bill, potentially allowing bulk surveillance of records to continue," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a statement.

"The Electronic Frontier Foundation cannot support a bill that doesn't achieve the goal of ending mass spying. We urge Congress to support uncompromising NSA reform."

In particular, the EFF is peeved about the broadness of the terms under which agency staff can snoop, which now include any number of factors. The fear is that the agency will be able to perform its customary verbal jujitsu to mean it's business as usual when it comes to collecting people's data.

There was also a plan for the bill to include a special advocate in hearings held by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, who would put the public's case in hearings over whether to allow surveillance of particular targets or not. This has now been reduced to having an advocate if the court decides one is needed.

The Senate is working on its own version of the bill, and advocates are now concentrating their efforts on making sure that the upper chamber's version has slightly more in the way of privacy controls before it is brought to a vote. ®

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