WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — The House of Representatives passed a late-night vote on Thursday to cut funding to two of the National Security Agency’s most controversial practices: Warrantless collection of Americans’ online data and the installation of surveillance “backdoors” on commercial tech products — a measure being applauded by tech companies and privacy advocates.
The House voted 293-123 in favor of an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2015 that effectively cuts off funding for programs seeking “vulnerabilities” in US-made tech products, often referred to as “backdoors.” The amendment also prohibits warrantless collection of Americans’ online activity under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The bipartisan House vote – 135 Republicans, 158 Democrats — saw majority support in both parties and among tech industry officials, despite some leading members of both parties speaking out against the amendment as a threat to national security.
“The American people can be kept safe and we can follow the Constitution,” libertarian-leaning Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., told Roll Call. He added that the NSA and CIA should have a warrant to access Americans’ information, and that the NSA shouldn’t be spending money to put backdoors on tech products coming from this country.
Massie continued: When the government “causes these companies to intentionally make defects in their product, they make Americans less safe,” said Rep. Massie. “They make Americans’ data less safe, and they compromise the quality of American goods overseas. But ultimately this is about the Constitution. If you believe in the Constitution, if you believe that it’s still valid, if you think we can honor the fourth amendment and that we can still keep people safe, I urge you to vote for this bill.”
According to The Guardian, a leaked report from June 2010 through the head of the NSA’s Access and Target Development department, described a program in which routers, servers, and other computer network devices were intercepted by the NSA and embedded with backdoor surveillance tools. That hardware was then repackaged and sent on to international customers.
Some experts warn that the amendment still doesn’t necessarily end all federal government “backdoor” programs, including FBI use of the technological spy tactic.
“The goal is clearly important. I worry that the scope…is limited,” Matt Blaze, a computer science professor and cryptographer at the University of Pennsylvania told Wired. “Even when the NSA and CIA don’t request or put pressure on vendors to incorporate backdoors, other agencies, like FBI, may be in the same business.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a large proponent of the amendment, praised the House approval, calling it “an important step in reining in the NSA” and its “invasive surveillance practices.”
Other tech companies including, Google, the American Library Association, and the ACLU were among a coalition that urged support for the measure.
“Both of these measures would make appreciable changes that would advance government surveillance reform and help rebuild lost trust among Internet users and businesses, while also preserving national security and intelligence authorities,” reads the letter, made available by The New America Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has been chaired by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt since 2008.
But House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Says the amendment endangers national security and aids terrorist regimes.
“Islamic radical terrorists are on the march in Iraq and the leader has publicly threatened to attack America,” he said. “Syria has become a vortex of jihadists from across the globe and the director of national intelligence and the director of homeland security have warned of the growing threat jihadists pose to our homeland. …This amendment would create a blind spot for the intelligence community tracking terrorists with direct connections to the U.S. homeland. …Such an impediment would put American lives at risk of another terrorist attack.”