US House votes "overwhelmingly" to cut funding of NSA surveillance

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

NSA funding cutsA strong majority of the US House of Representatives on Thursday night voted to cut funding for surveillance on citizens.

The vote came in at 293 to 123 in favor of an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would cut funding for National Security Agency (NSA) operations that include warrantless spying on Americans or installing hardware or software backdoors into products to enable communications interception.

The NSA currently collects emails, browsing and chat history under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and searches this information without a warrant for the communications of Americans - a practice known as "backdoor searches".

The amendment would forbid the NSA to use any of its funding from the Defense Appropriations Bill to conduct warrantless searches.

It would also disallow the agency to use its budget to get companies and organisations to add backdoors to their encryption standards.

The NSA has attempted to thwart encryption by, for example, peeling apart the layers of the Tor anonymizing service.

The agency has also routinely received - or intercepted - routers, servers and other computer network devices as they're being exported from the US to international customers.

As Glenn Greenwald recounted in his newly published book - No Place to Hide - the NSA then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on, thus giving it access to entire networks and all their users.

The provision approved by the House on Thursday was originally a central component in the original version of the USA Freedom Act - legislation the House passed last month to curb NSA spying and end bulk data collection.

The provision was stripped out of that earlier act during negotiations among congressional leaders.

The amendment states that, with a few exceptions, the NSA can't fund its agents' running of database queries that specify a US person as a target:

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 (50 U.S.C. 1881a) using a United States person as an identifier.

Also, the amendment tells both the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to stop using taxpayer money to rig backdoors:

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.

The proposal, which has drawn opposition from security agencies, still has to clear a Senate vote before it becomes law in 2015.

Still, the chief sponsors of the provision - Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, and Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky - are cheering the lopsided vote.

Digital rights organisations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) strongly support the amendment.

Mark Rumold, staff attorney for the EFF, called it an "important first step" in a statement issued Thursday night:

Tonight, the House of Representatives took an important first step in reining in the NSA. The House voted overwhelmingly to cut funding for two of the NSA's invasive surveillance practices: the warrantless searching of Americans' international communications, and the practice of requiring companies to install vulnerabilities in communications products or services. We applaud the House for taking this important first step, and we look forward to other elected officials standing up for our right to privacy.

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18 Responses to US House votes "overwhelmingly" to cut funding of NSA surveillance

  1. Anonymous · 123 days ago

    So basically when next wave of attacks hit us, all the whiners, need to sit back and just suck it up, and say. "Thank You Sir can I have another" . Freedom has never been free, there is always a cost to pay. So I don't want to see countless reports of people and house reps screaming saying how did we not know this.........

    One giant step backwards.......

    • Anonymous · 123 days ago

      What a crock...

    • Eric · 123 days ago

      Freedom from tyranny is far more important to most of us than some fundamentalist boogeyman that is supposedly going to attack us possibly in the future. We have homeless vets and jobless Americans who need help and instead the funds are going to spy on people who are completely innocent of any crime. Enough is enough!

    • Adam · 121 days ago

      The interesting thing about what you say is that we had all of the information regarding the 9/11 attacks BEFORE they happened. We just didn't bother to communicate them. Adding an Empire State -sized haystack to the equation isn't going to improve our "Freedom".

      • Andrew · 113 days ago

        hmmm glad to read your comment as the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia was given info with reference to 9/11 3 years before the event. but from what I understand the document was trashed and never red, all to the peril of the USA.

  2. Can ya hear us now NSA? Terrorism isn't the threat you think it is to justify this overwhelming anti-privacy shakedown of US citizens. You have to respect our privacy and the constitution even if it means some problems will fall through the cracks. We will just have to deal with the cost that comes with a government having limits and that is OK. You're growing out of control and homeland security's rise to a federal brute squad also needs defunding and needs to be reigned in.Citizens don't want a US version of Nazi SS treading around our country for "our safety".

  3. Chris · 123 days ago

    No change for spying on Non-Americans. Maybe the NSA is just the symptom of a larger problem, namely the unwillingness to grant equal rights of other people.

  4. Jim · 123 days ago

    Change the word "person" to "citizen" at the end of the first paragraph which was quoted indented, and I'm OK with it. US citizens NEED to be spying on non-citizens. That is the purpose for which the NSA exists. 9/11 made it abundantly clear that failure to gather and disseminate intelligence has potentially disastrous consequences.

    It's a balancing act, but as a US citizen, I have no interest at all in protecting the privacy of non-citizens. If we have a treaty with a nation that obligates us to protect their privacy, that would be acceptable. But, absent that, ...

    • Andrew · 113 days ago

      your allies should not be spied on if you want them to remain allies

      • Jim · 109 days ago

        As I said, "if we have a treaty with a nation ...". Presumably allies have such treaties.

        Which makes the NSA spying on Germany's Merkel (and probably others) a real problem.

        Spying on certain Iranian or Chinese (etc.) nationals, though, should be automatic and non-controversial, no matter where they happen to be sitting at the time. We didn't do enough spying in the years before 9/11, and it cost us dearly.

  5. JR · 123 days ago

    Harry Reid won't even allow this to be discussed in the Senate.

  6. Andrew · 123 days ago

    the house may cut the funding but will it stop the NSA from spying

  7. Anon · 123 days ago

    None of this matters, because GCHQ & Pals will Happily monitor US Citizens.

  8. Gavin · 123 days ago

    This is an important first step, but that's about all it is. There are loopholes large enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through, while the NSA is famous for squeezing through the eye of a needle:

    "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..."

    So the NSA can still work through its "5-eyes" and other partners (Israel etc.) to query such information. It remains to be seen how narrowly "collection", "foreign" and "intelligence" can all be defined (and maybe secretly interpreted) so as to exempt as much as possible from this restriction. And finally, this only addresses section 702 collections, which as we know is just one small piece of the NSA's activities.

    So no help for privacy of the wider world, and precious little for Americans themselves. But yes, it's a start.

    G

  9. William · 123 days ago

    There are still loopholes. I am one, for example. The quoted wording says "using a United States person as an identifier." I am a US citizen. I have been married to a Pakistani citizen for six years. We talk daily via Skype, SMS, and Localphone (UK) SIP/VOIP. We have submitted countless forms to the government for her immigration to the US. (Therefore the government knows every detail about us from those forms.) I support her by sending money to Pakistan (another NSA/CIA flag). We occasionally exchange encrypted romantic prose; encrypted to try to keep prying eyes from my literary attempts (flag #3). I have learned from pre-Snowden and post-Snowden revelations that the ISI, NSA, and GCHQ probably have a record of every word my wife and I have ever exchanged, and they certainly have retained our steamy encrypted love letters (because they are suspicious due to their encryption), all without any warrant that I am aware of.

    NSA legally can continue to monitor our romantic verbal, video, and written trysts without a warrant according to the quoted wording of the bill, by simply searching for my wife as the identifier.

    They are sure wasting a lot of taxpayer money on my wife and I, and I hope they are enjoying every word.

  10. I hope that a clear record is being kept of all the Washington parasites who voted in favour of this.

    Following your next 9-11, the list needs to be referred to every time one of the same politicos uses the words 'intelligence failure'

    In a world where google monitors email, instant messages, cloud files, cruises our streets sniffing our wifi, acquire a fleet of surveillance satellites and now has cameras in people's homes and live mikes on their phones - just for the purpose of making a buck - all this BS about the NSA needs to be put back into context and proportion.

  11. Anonymous · 120 days ago

    Its all just a show, and we remain as the audience clapping away.

  12. Randy · 42 days ago

    Cutting funding (official funding, that is) will do nothing to stop the surveilance. The are Black Ops budgets of billions of dollars that receive no congressional oversight at all.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.