Privacy advocates are quickly pulling their support from a newly amended bill intended to limit the government's mass collection of Americans' phone records.
A new version of the USA Freedom Act was released Tuesday, the culmination of more than a week of intense backdoor negotiations among House leadership, the White House, and the intelligence community.
The House will vote on the measure on Thursday, a spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor said. But backers of government-surveillance reform wasted no time condemning the changes.
"House leaders should have allowed a vote on the compromise version of the USA Freedom Act that was already agreed to, rather than undermining their own members and caving in to the intelligence community's demands," said Kevin Bankston, the policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, in a statement. "We cannot in good conscience support this weakened version of the USA Freedom Act, where key reforms—especially those intended to end bulk collection and increase transparency—have been substantially watered down."
Harley Geiger, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said his group was also withdrawing its support for the bill due to its loose definition of a "specific selection term," which provides a basis for how narrowly intelligence agencies would be required to define selected targets when conducting a search of phone records.
The new language "might limit nationwide surveillance, but does not clearly limit this authority for area codes or cities," Geiger said. "It would provide for an unacceptable level of surveillance in a bill that is supposed to reform broad government surveillance."
Other backers of surveillance reform took to Twitter to express similar frustration. The flurry of withdrawals "mirror lawmakers' growing concerns" about the bill, a spokesman for Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said.
The compromise further moves the goalposts on certain privacy and transparency measures toward what national security hawks wanted, even after they scored several concessions earlier this month when an amended bill passed out of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
The bill, authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, still would not allow bulk, limitless collection of all phone metadata—the numbers and time stamps of a call but not its contents—but its definition of when government officials are allowed to search those records has been widened from earlier agreed-upon language, advocates say. In addition, a transparency provision that specifies how much tech companies can disclose about the government's requests of user data falls short of what many had hoped.
The amended Freedom Act, which was also filed by Sensenbrenner, is slated for consideration in the Rules Committee on Tuesday afternoon. Sources on and off Capitol Hill said they were skeptical the vote would allow an open-amendment debate.
This article appears in the May 21, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.