House to amend CISPA in secret

As is with most cases, "classified information" is cited as the reason why the controversial "privacy killer" CISPA will be amended in secret. But it's OK; it's only people's privacy at risk here.

House members clockwise from top left: Jared Polis, who warned CISPA would "waive every single privacy law ever enacted"; Adam Schiff; Sheila Jackson Lee; Hank Johnson; Mike Rogers; Jan Schakowsky
House members during last year's floor debate on CISPA (clockwise from top left): Jared Polis, who warned it would "waive every single privacy law ever enacted"; Adam Schiff; Sheila Jackson Lee; Hank Johnson; Mike Rogers; Jan Schakowsky C-SPAN

Another day, another House Intelligence Committee session held in secret, under the rather convenient excuse that "classified information" might be revealed.

As was the case last year when members of the committee amended the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) the first time around -- the bill, dubbed a "privacy killer" by online activists and privacy groups, will once again be amended in a veil of secrecy.

According to the committee's spokesperson, Susan Phalen, (via The Hill), these secret hearings are not uncommon and "sometimes they'll need to bounce into classified information and go closed for a period of time to talk."

She said that in order to keep the flow of the mark-up -- where rewrites to proposed legislation are made -- the committee cannot suddenly stop, order every person and member of the media out of the chamber, only to be brought back in later once the discussions are back on unclassified territory.

Actually, they could, and probably should. Especially considering how much controversy has been stirred over this bill, transparency in this instance might appease at least some of the significant opposition to this highly privacy-infringing bill.

It comes as more than two-dozen civil liberties groups said in a joint letter to committee members (PDF) earlier this week that: "The public has a right to know how Congress is conducting the people's business, particularly when such important wide-ranging policies are at stake."

For those who aren't in the loop, the bill is designed to remove legal barriers preventing companies from sharing information -- including personal data from social-networking sites and other Web services -- with the U.S. government, under the principle that it may help prevent cyberattacks.

This means a company like Facebook, Twitter, Google, or any other Web or technology giant, such as your cell service provider, would be legally able to hand over vast amounts of data to the U.S. government and law enforcement -- for whatever purpose they deem necessary -- and face no legal reprisals.

Naturally, many in the industry welcomed and applauded the move. It would, after all, give them both civil and criminal legal protection. Thankfully, many took the polar opposite approach and saw the massive threat to civil liberties and online privacy.

Facebook, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Verizon, and AT&T -- among others -- supported the bill, but Mozilla, Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and just about every civil liberties and privacy group opposed it.

Though the bill passed in in the U.S. House of Representatives the first time around, it fell flat on its face when it stalled in the Senate.

Even the Obama administration threatened to veto the bill if it came across the president's desk, following an official response by the White House to a petition that crossed the 100,000 mark.

The commander in chief's officials said in a note, quite bluntly: "The Obama administration opposes CISPA." While Obama himself called for "comprehensive cybersecurity legislation," his administration said that "part of what has been communicated to congressional committees is that we want legislation to come with necessary protections for individuals."

A few months later at the 2013 State of the Union address, Obama signed (yet another) executive order -- bypassing Congress, which is at such loggerheads that it probably couldn't decide on the color of the hallway carpets -- introducing a similar set of rules, but with privacy protection fully in mind, to help protect critical national infrastructure from domestic and foreign cyberattacks.

Now that the bill has been reincarnated from the dark depths of the legal hellfire, it's likely that Obama will remain staunch in his anti-CISPA views, with the White House no doubt ready to threaten a veto again.

While there has been no word on when the secret session of the House Intelligence Committee will be, it's expected to be later this month.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet under the headline "Surprise, surprise: House committee to amend CISPA in secret, again."

 

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