Senate Passes Cyber Bill Despite Privacy Fears

After months of negotiation, a cybersecurity bill designed to step up defenses in the wake of high-profile hacks moves closer to the president’s desk.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (right) and Vice Chair Dianne Feinstein listen as National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testifies.
Oct. 27, 2015, 5:25 p.m.

Des­pite howls of protest from pri­vacy ad­voc­ates, the Sen­ate on Tues­day passed le­gis­la­tion aimed at bol­ster­ing the na­tion’s de­fenses against hack­ers.

The Cy­ber­se­cur­ity In­form­a­tion Shar­ing Act, or CISA, passed the Sen­ate 74-21.

Since the House earli­er this year passed two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of a cy­ber-in­form­a­tion-shar­ing bill, law­makers from the Sen­ate and House will have to come to­geth­er in a con­fer­ence to align their ver­sions of the le­gis­la­tion in­to a fi­nal, uni­fied ver­sion of the bill that will need to be passed again by both cham­bers be­fore it can be signed in­to law.

Op­pos­i­tion to the bill, which would provide in­cent­ives to private busi­nesses to share in­form­a­tion about on­line threats with each oth­er and with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, was led by the Sen­ate’s pri­vacy hawks—Ron Wyden, Patrick Leahy, and Al Franken—and backed by civil liber­ties groups and tech com­pan­ies who were un­happy with the bill’s pri­vacy pro­tec­tions.

But CISA’s co­spon­sors, Sens. Richard Burr and Di­anne Fein­stein, with the sup­port of two hugely in­flu­en­tial trade groups in the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Roundtable, ral­lied sen­at­ors around their bill, call­ing it a ne­ces­sary but in­cre­ment­al step to­ward pre­vent­ing massive data breaches like the ones that af­fected Sony Pic­tures En­ter­tain­ment and the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment over the last year.

Be­fore leav­ing for a month­long re­cess in Au­gust, sen­at­ors set up 22 amend­ments to get votes along­side the bill. Burr and Fein­stein fol­ded a num­ber of amend­ments that they sup­por­ted in­to a man­ager’s pack­age, which tweaked the bill with a lim­ited in­crease in pri­vacy pro­tec­tions, but left about a dozen oth­ers that they did not sup­port to get in­di­vidu­al votes.

On Tues­day morn­ing, sen­at­ors con­sidered a num­ber of amend­ments that would have bolstered the bill’s pri­vacy pro­tec­tions. The pro­posed changes would have tightened mech­an­isms for re­mov­ing sens­it­ive per­son­al in­form­a­tion from the threat in­dic­at­ors that would be shared un­der the pro­gram, spe­cified the kind of in­form­a­tion that could be con­sidered threat­en­ing enough to be shared, and made cer­tain in­form­a­tion avail­able to Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quests.

The Sen­ate voted down all of the pri­vacy of­fer­ings.

The day’s votes caught the eye of Ed­ward Snowden, who took to Twit­ter to push for the pri­vacy changes, and, when they were voted down, to shame the law­makers who voted against them.

Be­fore tak­ing up the bill and vot­ing on fi­nal pas­sage, two more in­di­vidu­al amend­ments got a vote, in­clud­ing an es­pe­cially con­tro­ver­sial change from Sen. Tom Cot­ton, which pro­posed ex­tend­ing li­ab­il­ity pro­tec­tions to com­pan­ies that chose to share dir­ectly with the FBI and the Secret Ser­vice.

Burr and Fein­stein said the amend­ment would undo their work to set up the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity as the cent­ral clear­ing­house for shared threat data, a view the White House said it shared in an of­fi­cial policy state­ment cir­cu­lated last week.

Cot­ton’s amend­ment, which Burr called a “deal-killer,” was over­whelm­ingly re­jec­ted, 73-22.

Fi­nally, sen­at­ors took up the man­ager’s amend­ment and the fi­nal bill, and passed both.

IBM, one of the busi­nesses that lob­bied in fa­vor of the bill, cel­eb­rated its pas­sage. “Today’s vote is a big win for both se­cur­ity and pri­vacy,” said Timothy Shee­hy, the com­pany’s vice pres­id­ent for tech­no­logy policy af­fairs. “Shar­ing tech­nic­al de­tails on the latest di­git­al threats is crit­ic­al to strength­en­ing Amer­ica’s cy­ber de­fenses.”

At a press con­fer­ence after the fi­nal vote, Burr and Fein­stein thanked sen­at­ors who worked with them on the bill, and lauded the bi­par­tis­an nature of its pas­sage. “What we saw in this pro­cess is the United States Sen­ate as it’s sup­posed to func­tion,” Burr said.

“On oc­ca­sion, we can defy the com­mon wis­dom that we’re totally grid­locked here in Wash­ing­ton,” ad­ded Sen. John Mc­Cain.

But pri­vacy groups vowed to keep fight­ing to boost the pri­vacy pro­tec­tions as the cy­ber­se­cur­ity le­gis­la­tion con­tin­ues through the polit­ic­al pro­cess.

“To avoid a veto, whatever emerges from the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee must be a bill that meets Pres­id­ent Obama’s pre­vi­ous stand­ards,” said Nath­an White, seni­or le­gis­lat­ive man­ager at Ac­cess, a di­git­al hu­man-rights or­gan­iz­a­tion. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s policy up to this point has been very clear—it has sup­por­ted CISA’s pro­cess but ex­pressed con­cerns that it is cur­rently ‘dan­ger­ous to cy­ber­se­cur­ity.’

“Today’s vote is a dis­ap­point­ment,” White ad­ded. “But it is not the end of the road.”

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