House Votes to Slam Some Surveillance 'Back Doors' Shut

Amendment passes to reduce some additional snooping authorities on Americans, block federal efforts to weaken encryption.


Stop staring, dude. It's not polite.
Credit: Kelly's Kustom Pinstriping / photo on flickr

When Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) broke with some of her privacy-focused peers in Congress to vote in favor of the USA Freedom Act, she told Reason (and others) that this would not be the end of her efforts to restrain unwarranted domestic surveillance by the federal government. She said she voted for the Freedom Act because—despite its limitations—it was an improvement over the status quo. She was nevertheless committed to continue improving that status quo further.

Yesterday afternoon she made good on that pledge, working with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) to again pass an amendment placing further restrictions on federal surveillance against Americans. Congress passed, 255-174, an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that defunds any efforts by the National Security Agency (NSA) to bypass any warrant requirements for gathering data and correspondence produced by Americans by trying to collect it from overseas sources. Because of the nature of the Internet, information passing from person to person, even domestically, may end up digitally travelling through foreign countries during the communication process or being stored in foreign countries. Federal snoops have been using the fact that private information outside the United States doesn't get the same legal protection that it does within the United States to try to get easier access. This tactic has been used not under the just-expired Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, but under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and was not affected by the new data collection restrictions of the USA Freedom Act.

Massie and Lofgren both released statements about their success in trying to stop this form of "backdoor" surveillance:

"The USA Freedom Act is not the last word on surveillance reform," said Rep. Massie.  "Backdoor surveillance authorized under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act is arguably worse than the bulk collection of records illegally collected under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This amendment is a much needed next step as Congress continues to rein in the surveillance state and reassert the Fourth Amendment."

"This amendment is the most meaningful step Congress can take to end warrantless bulk collection of US persons' communications and data," said Rep. Lofgren. "We know that mass surveillance of Americans, as reported in the news, has taken place under the FISA Section 702 authority. This vote shows once again that the House is committed to upholding the Constitution and protecting Americans from warrantless invasions of their privacy. Enacting this amendment into law will benefit our economy, protect our competitiveness abroad, and make significant strides in rebuilding the public's trust."

The amendment also prohibits the government from trying to force companies to introduce a different type of "backdoor" surveillance capacity. That is, the amendment prohibits efforts to make companies build secret "backdoor" access to encryption to allow federal snoops easy access to private data. Declan McCullaugh recently wrote about the history of the federal government trying to demand encryption back doors in our technology in the May issue of Reason magazine. Read more here.

The amendment still needs to survive the Senate, obviously. Of concern, this is not the first time Massie and Lofgren have introduced this amendment. It previously passed the House but was stripped out of the omnibus spending bill it had been attached to. Perhaps the gigantic unfolding disaster of China hacking its way into the personnel records of all federal employees will make it extremely clear that weakening encryption is bound to result in really bad unintended consequences.

NEXT: Trouble Not Over for Florida Parents of 11-Year-Old Taken in CPS Dispute

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I wonder if the NSA’s spookiest spooks were in the OPM database.

    1. Yes and no.

      I used to work for the company that ran Open Enrollment for OPM and for certain classified workers they had a system that changed all of their demographic info so that we got a different name, address, and even a different agency they worked for and only the spook agency could map that data back to the real person.

      So if you look in the OPM database you might find say a John Smith who works for the St Louis Milk Market (yes a real government agency) and lives in La Nexa kansas however no such person exists and that employee account actually belongs to some CIA or NSA spook whose identity is classified

  2. Slam Some Surveillance ‘Back Doors’ Shut

    The Opposite of Riven Act of 2015?

    1. The threat of anal rape is a felony under Federal law. Reason should expect my subpoena shortly.

      1. I believe the phrase is–can’t rape the willing?

        Truth be told, though; I’d prefer something like The Opposite of Riven Act L____ of 2015.

        You have to think of the acronym, too, Warty.

        1. How do you feel about Indian attorneys?

            1. Call center.

              1. I’m in. Just no red men of the prairie.

                1. I’m in.

                  No, that’s what I am supposed to say to you.

        2. The Opposite of Riven As Law Act of 2015? It’s the best I can do right now.

        3. Riven Upliftment and Fulfillment Investment Executive Statute 2015

          1. My name is Riven, and I approve both of the above Acts/Statutes.

        4. Opening Riven’s Anterior Law

          1. Well, if it’s the law…

            1. Yes ma’am

              *hitches belt in suggestive way*

              It’s the law.

        5. Riven, let me tell you something about myself. I like romantic candlelight dinners, long walks along the beach, romance novels, and snuggling. I also am rumored to fuck sheep. Please send me your phone number and we can share intimate stories.

          Otherwise, you’re going to jail.

      2. Wait, is “subpoena” a euphemism for anal rape?

    2. I can’t imagine why that reminded me of this, Warty.

        1. I sent that to Mrs. Manhattan. She’s taking a deposition right now. We’ll see how it goes over.

          1. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.

          2. If you need a couch to sleep on for a few days…

  3. Perhaps the gigantic unfolding disaster of China hacking its way into the personnel records of all federal employees will make it extremely clear that weakening encryption is bound to result in really bad unintended consequences.

    Now, let’s not go crazy here. This just means that federal employees will require another, unique layer of data protection. Or maybe special exemptions from record gathering and retention.

    1. I was just hearing on a podcast that those personnel records were all stored in PLAINTEXT!! Breathtaking incompetence isn’t a strong enough phrase.

    2. Trust me they already have them, no hacking required.

      As I mentioned above, I used to work for the company who ran Open Enrollment for OPM and the Federal Judiciary. The Database system for the Eligibility and Enrollment platform was an ancient system based on encrypted flat files (basically each “table” was just a text file that you could open and read in notepad) and we shipped copies of that sucker to our offshore vendor all the time.

      The odds that someone had not sold a copy of that database are basically 0 because we had no safeguards whatsoever

      1. Correction, that should read UNENCRYPTED.

        They did finally update that system to a modern one running on an Oracle database with encryption on the SSN’s, passwords, and banking info about 4 years ago so any data they got from that source is getting stale at this point but even with this system every member of the offshore team has access to a tool to decrypt those fields and as much as I fought to keep production data out of the test environment I was overruled so a bunch of Indian nationals still have full access to that data and could steal it any time they wanted.

  4. She said she voted for the Freedom Act because?despite its limitations?it was an improvement over the status quo.

    The status quo at the time of the vote was that the PATRIOT ACT had expired and we were back to the good ‘ol pre-9/11 freedom. Typical Dem liar.

  5. My best friend’s step-mother makes $85 hourly on the computer . She has been fired from work for nine months but last month her pay check was $17089 just working on the computer for a few hours. see it here
    LINK HERE??????

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.