The House voted Thursday to block passage of an amendment aimed to rein in U.S. domestic mass surveillance by the NSA and protect strong encryption standards citing Sunday’s Orlando tragedy as reason to fight surveillance reforms. The so-called Massie-Lofgren amendment was considered a key privacy provision by civil liberties groups who had worked for years to bring the measure to a vote.
The House voted 198-222 to strike down the amendment that was attached to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2017 (H.R. 5293). Privacy activists cited Sunday’s deadly assault in Orlando as part of the reason the measures defeat.
“This amendment prohibits the government from searching data already in its possession collected lawfully … to determine whether Omar Mateen was in contact [with terrorists overseas],” argued Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), House Judiciary Committee during the floor debate.
Massie-Lofgren was considered a key anti-surveillance provision that would have prohibited government funds from being spent to perform warrantless backdoor searches where agencies such as the NSA can hunt its massive database of online communications of US citizens without first obtaining a warrant – as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The measure would also have protected encryption standards and would of prohibited the Department of Defense from spending money to create or buy security vulnerabilities for software or hardware, similar to the FBI’s payment for a zero-day iPhone vulnerability.
In reaction to Thursday’s ruling the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the “no” vote was a huge blow in light of the fact it took years of effort to build support and consensus for the amendment.
“There’s no reason to think that mandating backdoors into American companies’ encrypted products, or allowing warrantless searches of Americans’ private data, would’ve prevented this weekend’s horrible tragedy, but that hasn’t stopped security hawks from exploiting the Orlando shooting to defeat this amendment,” said Mark M. Jaycox, with the EFF in a written statement to Threatpost. “I think that with more time to push back against such cynical political moves and more time for healing after the Orlando attack, this vote would have turned out very differently.”
The Massie-Lofgren amendment was originally introduced two years ago by representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Ted Poe (R-TX) and attached to a 2015 House Defense Appropriations bill. However, despite the amendment passing the House of Representatives by a veto-proof majority of 293 votes to 123, it was stripped from a final Senate bill when a stopgap spending measure was rushed through the Senate to prevent a government shutdown.
The measure was reintroduced earlier this month and continued to receive majority bipartisan support and had wide industry backing from major tech firms and civil liberties groups. But after Sunday’s shooting a number of opponents stepped up their opposition to the amendment.
On Wednesday, the head of the house Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Capitol Hill urging the House not to strip the FBI’s intelligence-gathering capabilities in the wake of the Orlando mass shooting.
“The national security threats to the United States and its allies are greater today than at any point since 9/11. To keep Americans safe, our intelligence community needs to fully employ every tool available to it,” wrote Devin Nunes, (R-Calif.) and cosigned by Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.).
Massie-Lofgren amendment supporters argue that current surveillance programs did not stop Sunday’s attack and that maintaining those programs created a false sense of security.
“We pride ourselves on being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Adopting mass surveillance policies proves we are neither. A free people are not watched and brave people would not invite the erosion of their own freedom in the race to gain security,” said Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy for the EFF, in an interview with Threatpost earlier this week.