Senate Blocks Vote on Curbing NSA’s Bulk Data Collection Program

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Photographer: Triloks

The Senate blocked legislation that would have limited the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, more than year after Edward Snowden exposed the extent of U.S. government surveillance programs.

Senate leaders failed to get the 60 votes needed to advance the bill yesterday. It’s unlikely a new version can be drafted for another vote before the congressional term expires this year.

The bill was an attempt to force spy agencies to collect only information sought through a court order and exclude the use of broad searches like by ZIP codes. A coalition of Internet and technology companies, which include Google Inc. and Twitter Inc., supported the Senate bill while saying the Republican-backed House version passed in May would still allow bulk collection of Internet user data.

“The USA Freedom Act eliminates tools critical to the intelligence community’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks, and its adoption would greatly degrade our ability to fight domestic terrorism in particular,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, said by e-mail.

The Senate, with a Democratic majority, needed to act on the vote now before Republicans, many of whom support government surveillance programs, take control of the Senate in January following key wins in this month’s elections. Republicans already control the House.

The 58-42 vote to move the measure forward came mostly along party lines.

Losing Contracts

U.S. Internet and technology companies say they’ve already lost contracts with foreign governments over the issue. Forrester Research Inc. estimates the backlash against NSA spying could cost as much as $180 billion in lost business. Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. are among the companies pushing for limits.

Americans learned of the spying in June 2013 when Snowden, a former NSA contractor revealed a program under which the U.S. uses court orders to compel companies to turn over data about their users. Documents divulged by Snowden also uncovered NSA hacking of fiber-optic cables abroad and installation of surveillance tools into routers, servers and other network equipment.

Apple and Google have retaliated by offering stronger security, including on new smartphones, to automatically shield photos, contact lists and other documents from the government. That, in turn, has heightened tensions with law enforcement agencies that want access to the data for criminal investigations.

Controversial Program

The Senate bill, S. 2685, was designed to end one of the NSA’s most controversial domestic spy programs, through which it collects and stores the phone records of millions of people not suspected of any wrongdoing. In addition to curbing data collection, the legislation would allow companies to publicly reveal the number and types of orders they receive from the government to hand over user data.

Under the U.S. Patriot Act, passed following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies can seek an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to compel a business or individual to produce “any tangible thing” that may be related to an international terrorism investigation.

The Senate proposal, which has the backing of the Obama administration, would require the NSA to get court orders to obtain phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, from Verizon Communications Inc. and other carriers.

Collecting Data

The bill also would require the government to narrow its surveillance, forbidding authorities from collecting all information about a particular service provider, or from collecting geographic data like a city, ZIP code or area code.

“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican who is expected to become majority leader in January. “At a minimum, we shouldn’t be doing anything to make this situation worse.”

The U.S House passed a bill, H.R. 3361, curbing NSA powers in May. However, there are differences between the House bill and the Senate measure that could complicate efforts to come to a final agreement by the end of the year.

A group of technology companies, including Facebook, Google and Apple, opposed the House bill because of what it called an “unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data.” Some lawmakers who voted against the bill agreed that the legislation should have been stronger.