It’s time for the Senate to act to preserve digital rights

The Department of Defense Appropriations Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week and is now awaiting Senate consideration. In the closing hours of consideration on the House floor, two amendments were approved that strengthened privacy rights for internet users.

The Department of Defense is funded through a two-prong system: the National Defense Authorization Act that sets the maximum amount Congress can allocate to the Department, while the Appropriations Act specifies how much funding each division in the Department (including the NSA) receives and for what purposes it can or cannot be used. Both amendments were added to the latter bill and would have a profound effect on the NSA’s operations.

End of warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ phones and email. 

Since a secret “rule change” in October 2011, the NSA has used Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to collect and search U.S. persons’ communications (phone and email) without a warrant. The NSA has claimed it does not target U.S. persons, but that hasn’t stopped the Agency from collecting billions of purely domestic communications in its dragnet. The Lofgren-Massie amendment, passed by a 293-123 vote, bars the NSA from using its funding to pursue this kind of warrantless wiretapping.

No more backdoors in online services. 

One of the most surprising revelations from the Snowden leaks involved the NSA’s successful efforts to build “backdoors” in online services to obtain users’ personal information. This took many forms, including paying companies to introduce flaws into their encryption systems, using supercomputers to break codes, and pressuring companies to build entry points for the NSA into their software. The Lofgren-Massie amendment also bars the NSA from using appropriated money to create backdoors.

No tampering with new encryption standards. 

The NSA is also known to have planted vulnerabilities in encryption standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that are widely used to secure online transactions and functions. An amendment by Representative Alan Grayson of Florida, which also passed, prohibits the NSA from using any part of its budget to interfere with NIST’s work.

The end of the NSA?

It’s important to note that these amendments don’t definitively close the door on the NSA’s rights-abusing surveillance practices, as they don’t actually forbid the practices themselves. Supplemental appropriations bills could re-institute the programs, which could also be re-started with next year’s funding cycle. However, the amendments send a clear message to the Administration and the Intelligence Community: surveillance practices that lack transparency, accountability, and protections for human rights are not acceptable.

While these amendments have successfully passed the House, it is time to call on Senate leaders to introduce identical language. The text has to pass both houses of the U.S. Congress before it will go to the President for signature. The Senate cannot delay the consideration of these important human rights protections.