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Congress unveils bill to limit NSA's powers

A bipartisan group of senators introduces a bill that would prohibit the bulk collection of e-mail and phone records of US citizens.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read
Declan McCullagh/CNET

Several US senators are trying to clamp down on the activities of the National Security Agency through a new bill.

Unveiled in Congress on Wednesday, the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act aims to stop the NSA's bulk collection of the records of US citizens. Specifically, the bill wants to amend certain sections of the Foreign Intelligence Services Act (FISA), which the NSA has used to justify its data gathering.

One amendment to FISA would prohibit the bulk collection of phone records, while another would prevent the bulk gathering of e-mail records. In the case of phone records, the government would still be able to get the records of anyone suspected of terrorism or anyone in contact with a suspected terrorist.

The bill would also end a loophole for "back door searches," which allow the government to access the records of American citizens without a warrant. The government would only be allowed to gather records that are to or from a suspected terrorist, rather than those that are simply "about the target."

Further, the bill would strengthen the prohibition against "reverse targeting," which accesses the records of a foreigner only as a means to investigate an American who has been communicating with that foreigner. It would also impose a statute on the use of unlawfully collected information.

Finally, the bill would allow companies forced to provide customer information to the government the freedom to divulge more details about their roles in the process.

Introduced by US Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the bill is a reaction to criticism that the NSA's bulk data snooping unconstitutionally targets all Americans rather than just those suspected of terrorism.

"There is growing, bipartisan sentiment in Colorado and across the country that the way the NSA and our intelligence agencies are balancing Americans' privacy rights and our security is fundamentally out of whack," Udall said in a statement. "We need to end the NSA's collection of millions of innocent Americans' private phone records and focus on the real problem: terrorists and spies. These aren't vague or abstract threats to our liberty. These dragnet searches are happening right now."

Earlier this year, an amendment that would have ended the NSA's use of the Patriot Act to conduct mass surveillance of Americans' phone calls failed to pass in the House by just seven votes. The Obama administration also attempted to assuage concerns over US surveillance activities by outlining four NSA reform initiatives in August.