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FAQ: What you need to know about CISPA

The House version of the information-sharing bill passed last week

April 30, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act despite opposition from privacy advocates, lawmakers and even the White House, which threatened to veto the bill if it lands on the president's desk in its current form.

Here's what you need to know about CISPA.

What is CISPA? CISPA is short for the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (H.R. 3523). U.S Reps. Mike J. Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) introduced the bill in the House in November. The bill is designed to bolster cybersecurity by enabling better information sharing between Internet companies and the government. An amended version of the bill passed the House by a 248-168 vote Thursday.

What sort of information sharing? CISPA would allow Internet companies, such as Internet service providers, to monitor their networks and to collect, analyze and share information on any user activities that they believe present a threat to their networks. The law would allow companies to share any information "pertaining to the protection" of their networks with the National Security Agency and other federal agencies. In return, federal agencies would share both classified and unclassified cyberthreat information in their possession to help Internet companies bolster their defenses against cyberthreats.

Who supports CISPA? CISPA has broad support from many technology companies, industry trade groups and lawmakers who say that information sharing is vital to cybersecurity.

Why do privacy advocates and rights groups oppose the bill? Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology say the bill is dangerous because it is too vaguely worded. They worry that the bill would allow Internet companies to collect an almost unlimited set of information about Internet users and would allow the companies to share the information with government agencies such as the NSA, without judicial oversight. The law would also allow Internet companies to use a "cybersecurity exception" clause to skirt the privacy protection provided by statutes such as the Federal Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

What do you mean by vaguely worded? Critics claim the bill uses loose language to describe cyberthreats, network security attacks, countermeasures, cybersecurity systems, and other crucial terms. They claim the ambiguity can create big problems. For instance, CISPA offers no clear explanation of what activity defines a cyberthreat, although companies would be allowed to monitor and share information about those activities. The language would also allow companies to collect information on almost all Internet communications, and justify it on cybersecurity grounds. Even innocuous activity such as using a proxy server or an anonymizer could be deemed a suspicious activity under CISPA.

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