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US House Representatives Vote to Rein in Unwarranted Government Surveillance and Backdoors

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The US House of Representatives has voted 293-123 in favor of a proposal that would essentially block government authorities from conducting warrantless searches on the data of US citizens, and stop the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency from creating hardware and software backdoors for spying.

After around 10 minutes of debate Thursday evening, the House voted on an amendment (PDF) to the 2015 Defense appropriations bill would prevent government employees from searching government databases for US citizen data without a warrant. The amendment also cut off further funding the CIA and NSA would use for building exploitable vulnerabilities (ie. backdoors) into domestic hardware and software for eavesdropping.

The bill was largely bipartisan, and drew support from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Republican who wrote the US Patriot Act, aimed at dealing with bulk metadata collection.

The amendment, however, faced some opponents, including the familiar argument that limiting the NSA’s intelligence-gathering activities could jeopardize national security. Others, including Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, pointed out that an amendment to an appropriations bill with only 10 minutes of debate was not the appropriate way to reform intelligence gathering.

According to a TechDirt article in favor of the amendment, the unanimous vote represents a rare moment where politicians have overwhelmingly voted to defund an NSA program, and addresses the backdoor spying done under the Section 702 program which was absent from the watered-down USA Freedom Act introduced in October 2013.

A year after Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which US citizens are the subject of mass government surveillance, this is a major step for online privacy advocates.

Mark Rumold, staff attorney for online advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stated, “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.”

Still, there are many issues to work out, such as reworking the limits on foreign surveillance. And as technology companies continue to handle more and more customer data, governments that impinge on personal freedom or don’t provide users privacy rights may not engender the trust needed for tech companies, especially in the US, to flourish.

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