Meaningful Surveillance Reform Risks Defeat

Meaningful surveillance reform risks defeat if the reintroduction of the Massie-Lofgren amendment to a DoD spending bill is derailed because new US House rule changes.

Civil liberties groups are anxiously waiting to see if an anti-surveillance amendment will be added to a Department of Defense spending bill Tuesday. The so-called Massie-Lofgren amendment would rein in U.S. domestic mass surveillance by the NSA and protect U.S. encryption standards.

The amendment, considered a significant post-Snowden reform, risks not being added to a Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2017 (H.R. 5293). That’s because last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan changed rules governing how amendments were added to bills. Ryan’s rule changes cut significantly the number of amendments allowed to be attached to spending bills. That was in order to limit debate on spending appropriations in hopes of cutting through Washington D.C. gridlock and to speed approval of spending bills ahead of the August Senate recess.

The Massie-Lofgren provision, which has bipartisan support, prohibits government funds from being spent to perform warrantless backdoor searches where agencies such as the NSA can search their massive database of online communications of U.S. citizens without first obtaining a warrant–as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

A second component to the amendment protects encryption standards and would prohibit the Defense Department 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.

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 consideration of the reintroduced Massie-Lofgren amendment began late Monday by the Senate Rules Committee. As of Tuesday morning, the committee is currently still deliberating which 100 proposed amendments will be attached to Department of Defense Appropriations Act. If the anti-surveillance amendment wins approval by the Senate it still faces scrutiny as part of the final bill.

“Amendments are politics and are shaped by current events,” said Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with Threatpost. He said the amendment faces new scrutiny in the wake of calls to increase domestic surveillance in the wake of the Orlando, Florida mass shooting.

“We face an uphill struggle in respect to both (presumptive presidential) candidates that have bought in to mass surveillance,” Buttar said.

Over the weekend Donald Trump called for more domestic surveillance in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, according to news reports. Hillary Clinton similarly said she supported more internet monitoring to prevent “lone wolf attacks,” according to the same report.

A final vote on H.R. 5293 is expected later this week.

Suggested articles