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House votes to outlaw NSA's bulk collection of phone records

Grant Gross | May 8, 2014
A U.S. House of Representatives committee has taken a major step toward outlawing the NSA's controversial bulk collection of telephone and other business records generated by U.S. residents.

Since October, lawmakers have been working to iron out a compromise language that could gain broad support. Many digital rights and privacy groups have continued to support the compromise version of the bill, saying it will create basic privacy protections for U.S. residents.

The vote Wednesday shows strong bipartisan support for "real NSA reform," said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

"This historic vote by the House Judiciary Committee to ban the government's bulk collection of any records — telephone records, Internet records, financial records, or any others — is a milestone in the push to rein in the NSA's surveillance authority," he said by email.

Bankston called on the House Intelligence Committee to abandon its "much weaker reform bill" and support the USA Freedom Act when it meets Thursday to consider its own bill. "It's time to put aside fake fixes and ban bulk collection for good," he said.

The USA Freedom Act has 149 sponsors in the 435-member House of Representatives.

The committee on Wednesday rejected several proposed amendments that would have made it more difficult for the NSA and FBI to collect business records. Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, offered a half-dozen amendments, including one that would have required a higher legal standard for business records collection by forcing the FISA Court to find probable cause of a crime and issue a warrant before allowing collection.

Sensenbrenner and other committee members said Congress has never required a probable-cause standard for business records that don't include the content of suspects' communications.

The committee needs to look at the collection of big data and its impact on the privacy rights of U.S. residents, Lofgren said.

When Congress passed the Patriot Act in 2001, "big data did not exist in the same way that it does today," she said. "I do believe this committee and this Congress is going to have to come to grips with ... what it means for personal privacy in the digital age."

 

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