When the US House of Representatives made a puny attempt to rein in the rampant National Security Agency last month with a watered-down USA Freedom bill, it only seemed to underline the difficulty of downsizing the powerful surveillance state.
So it came as something of a surprise when the same House struck at the heart of two of the NSA’s most controversial activities by stripping them of their funding last week. In an amendment to a department of defence appropriations bill, the House voted to cut off monies for a provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allowed intelligence agencies to conduct searches of collected surveillance data that target Americans, while also expressly forbidding the practice of demanding that hardware manufacturers or software providers build “backdoors” into their offerings to enable the agency to access user communications.
The amendment is a signal that there exists much stronger commitment and political will to reduce the size and scope of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities than was previously estimated. Past attempts at reform have disappointed in their limited vision and lacklustre execution. The toothless freedom bill, whose earlier incarnation was hailed by privacy advocates, was reportedly undone by resistance from the judiciary and intelligence committees of Congress, under influence from the intelligence lobby. As an amendment to an appropriations bill, this piece of legislation escaped scrutiny from the two committees, and its passage indicates a growing bipartisan consensus that the NSA has overreached its mandate.
Of course, these anti-snooping measures still need to be passed by the Senate, the White House could veto the amendment even if it is passed. And this reform, significant as it is, only addresses the surveillance of Americans, not foreigners. That fight, unfortunately, seems to have few takers.