Senate Panel Passes Cybersecurity Bill Despite NSA Fears

Privacy groups warn the legislation would give the spy agency access to even more personal data.

A person claiming to speak for activist hacker group Anonymous is seen issuing a warning throught a video circulated online to 'go to war' with the Singapore government over recent Internet licensing rules on November 1, 2013.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
July 8, 2014, 12:57 p.m.

The Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee ap­proved le­gis­la­tion Tues­day aimed at help­ing com­pan­ies and the gov­ern­ment thwart hack­ers.

But the bill faces op­pos­i­tion from pri­vacy groups, who warn that it could give the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency ac­cess to even more per­son­al in­form­a­tion of Amer­ic­ans.

The Cy­ber­se­cur­ity In­form­a­tion Shar­ing Act, ad­vanced in a 12-3 vote, would make it easi­er for busi­nesses and the gov­ern­ment to share in­form­a­tion with each oth­er about cy­ber­at­tacks. Busi­ness groups ar­gue that leg­al bar­ri­ers are pre­vent­ing them from get­ting the in­form­a­tion they need to stop hack­ers.

“Every week, we hear about the theft of per­son­al in­form­a­tion from re­tail­ers and trade secrets from in­nov­at­ive busi­nesses, as well as on­go­ing ef­forts by for­eign na­tions to hack gov­ern­ment net­works,” Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein said in a state­ment. “This bill is an im­port­ant step to­ward curb­ing these dan­ger­ous cy­ber­at­tacks.”

The le­gis­la­tion in­cludes pro­vi­sions aimed at pro­tect­ing pri­vacy, such as re­quir­ing that com­pan­ies that share in­form­a­tion first strip out per­son­ally iden­ti­fi­able data (such as names, ad­dresses, and So­cial Se­cur­ity num­bers) of known Amer­ic­ans.

But the pri­vacy groups are still wor­ried that the le­gis­la­tion could en­cour­age a com­pany such as Google to turn over vast batches of emails or oth­er private data to the gov­ern­ment. The in­form­a­tion would go first to the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, but could then be shared with the NSA or oth­er in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

“In­stead of rein­ing in NSA sur­veil­lance, the bill would fa­cil­it­ate a vast flow of private com­mu­nic­a­tions data to the NSA,” the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion, and dozens of oth­er pri­vacy groups wrote in a let­ter to sen­at­ors last month.

Demo­crat­ic Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Ud­all voted against the le­gis­la­tion, say­ing in a state­ment that it “lacks ad­equate pro­tec­tions for the pri­vacy rights of law-abid­ing Amer­ic­ans, and that it will not ma­ter­i­ally im­prove cy­ber­se­cur­ity.”

The sen­at­ors said they don’t trust the gov­ern­ment not to ex­ploit loop­holes to spy on Amer­ic­ans. Ac­cord­ing to a Wyden aide, the com­mit­tee de­feated an amend­ment that the Ore­gon Demo­crat offered that would have strengthened pri­vacy pro­tec­tions. 

The le­gis­la­tion is a coun­ter­part to the Cy­ber In­tel­li­gence Shar­ing and Pro­tec­tion Act, which passed the House last year.

That le­gis­la­tion promp­ted a ma­jor back­lash from In­ter­net act­iv­ists, who fear it would un­der­mine In­ter­net pri­vacy. More than 100,000 people signed a White House pe­ti­tion op­pos­ing the bill, and “CISPA” be­came a dirty word on many blogs, dis­cus­sion for­ums, and news sites.

The White House is­sued a veto threat on CISPA, say­ing it lacked ad­equate pri­vacy safe­guards.

“I don’t know what in­form­a­tion you would be con­cerned about that NSA would have in an in­form­a­tion-shar­ing bill,” Fein­stein told re­port­ers fol­low­ing the markup, which was closed to the pub­lic. “If some­body’s hack­ing, you want [the in­form­a­tion] to go where it needs to go.”

She said the le­gis­la­tion is just a “first step” in im­prov­ing cy­ber­se­cur­ity, and that she is hope­ful it will be­come law be­fore the end of the year.

Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss, the com­mit­tee’s top Re­pub­lic­an, said the bill is a care­fully craf­ted com­prom­ise between busi­ness groups and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates.

“It’s not per­fect for any­body,” Cham­b­liss told re­port­ers. “But if we take no ac­tion, then cy­ber­at­tacks are go­ing to con­tin­ue to oc­cur, and there is the po­ten­tial for the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy to be severely dis­rup­ted.”


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