Tech groups press Congress to pass USA Freedom Act

Bill would alleviate concerns over government data collection, groups say

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Credit: NSA

As Congress returned from summer recess Monday, several technology and civil rights groups quickly renewed their push for a bill that seeks to put curbs on the bulk collection of phone records and Internet data by the government.

In a letter, representatives of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Software Alliance, the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software and Information Industry Association urged Senate lawmakers to quickly approve the USA Freedom Act (S. 2685).

Introduced in July by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the bill would put new limits on the federal government's authority to ask telecommunications companies and Internet service providers for customer records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

It would also require the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court to be more transparent about its decisions regarding the government's use of FISA to collect data on individuals suspected of terrorist activity. In addition, the USA Freedom Act seeks to limit the use of data collected by entities such as the National Security Agency and the FBI under FISA and the Patriot Act.

Supporters of the bill say the changes are vital to reining in the NSA's domestic surveillance practices.

Concerns over the U.S. government's data collection activities have caused substantial problems for U.S. technology companies over the past year. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks about PRISM and other NSA data collection programs have caused U.S. companies to lose customers and business in other countries.

Technology giants like IBM and Cisco have reported blowback from overseas customers as a result of concerns stoked by Snowden's revelations. Some have predicted that U.S. cloud hosting companies could lose tens of billions of dollars over the next few years as overseas customers take their business to foreign rivals.

Many vendors, including Google, Microsoft and others have asked the government for permission to disclose more details about the the kind of customer data they have provided to the government in recent years in response to requests under the Patriot Act and FISA. The companies have argued that such transparency is vital to regaining the confidence of international customers.

It is against this background that the tech groups are calling for quick passage of the USA Freedom Act. Reforms contained in the bill "will send a clear signal to the international community and to the American people that government surveillance programs are narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight," this week's letter to the senators noted.

U.S. technology companies have experienced losses in overseas markets as a result of the surveillance programs revelations, the letter noted. Other countries are also mulling proposals that would limit free data flows between countries, the letter cautioned.

The measures in the USA Freedom Act would alleviate some of these concerns and would help restore faith in the U.S. government and the U.S. technology sector, the letter said.

Civil rights groups and the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which support the bill, called it a good first step in reining in the NSA's domestic data collection practices. The bill addresses many concerns but still leaves some wiggle room for the NSA and other U.S. spy agencies to exploit it to their advantage, the EFF said in blog post this week.

Even so, it offers the best chance for some positive change, according to the EFF. "Congress can do the right thing by pushing forward with the USA Freedom Act and passing much needed NSA reform," the EFF said.

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