By a count of 293 to 123, the US House of Representatives voted last night to rein in warrantless searches of Americans by the NSA.
Ordinarily, surveilling an American requires a warrant — probable cause and all that. But in 2008, the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) allowed judges to allow surveillance even if law enforcement had not specified who exactly would be targeted. With just vague targets, obviously probable cause is impossible to argue. Technically, the NSA is not allowed to target Americans under this statute, but it’s been used as the justification for PRISM and other programs that collect (and store) massive amounts of data on US citizens and foreigners alike.
But the amendment to the 2015 Defense budget bill just approved by the House mandates that “none of the funds made available by this Act may be used by an officer or employee of the United States to query a collection of foreign intelligence information acquired under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 using a United States person identifier.”
Furthermore, the amendment has ramifications of technology companies, stating, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency to mandate or request that a person alter its product or service to permit the electronic surveillance of any user of said product or service for said agencies.”
This is no trivial development: This would hugely curtail the NSA’s ability to gather and store information on American citizens. The only problem is, now it must pass the Senate and then be signed into law by President Obama, who could veto it. And as we saw last month, NSA reform bills have a way of becoming gutted and declawed, if they pass at all. Vox’s Timothy Lee notes that a similar mandate was already removed from the USA FREEDOM Act, Congress’ largely ineffectual attempt to reform the NSA.
Seeing as how this a defense budget bill, not a high-profile attempt to rein in the NSA, reform proponents should hope that legislators pay less attention this time around.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]