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House OKs measure defunding NSA backdoor surveillance

An amendment to the Defense Dept. spending bill prohibits funding for installation of security vulnerabilities in US-made tech equipment.

Declan McCullagh/CNET

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure late Thursday to disarm two of the National Security Agency's surveillance tactics.

The House voted 293-123 in favor of an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2015 that would cut off funding for programs engineering security vulnerabilities in US-made tech products, commonly known as backdoors. Proposed by Republican Thomas Massie and Democrat Zoe Lofgren, the amendment to the spending bill would also prohibit access to Americans' Internet communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act without a warrant.

"We took a big step tonight to ‪#‎ShutTheBackDoor‬ on unwarranted government surveillance by passing the Massie-Lofgren amendment," Lofgren wrote in a Facebook post. "The House stood up for the American people and the Constitution, and that is something we can all celebrate."

The amendment is in response to alleged activity revealed late last year by German newspaper Der Spiegel, which reported that the US agency intercepts deliveries of electronic equipment to plant spyware to gain remote access to systems once they are delivered and installed. According to the report, the NSA has planted backdoors to access computers, hard drives, routers, and other devices from companies such as Cisco, Dell, Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor, Samsung and Huawei.

According to The Guardian, a leaked report dated June 2010 from the head of the NSA's Access and Target Development department described a program in which routers, servers, and other computer network devices were intercepted by the NSA. After being embedded with backdoor surveillance tools, the hardware was then repackaged and sent on to international customers. With backdoor surveillance systems, the NSA could feasibly gain access to vast networks and users.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a vocal proponent of the measure, applauded its approval.

Mark Rumold, a staff attorney with the nonprofit digital rights group said in a statement that the vote was "an important first step in reining in the NSA" and its "invasive surveillance practices."

The amendment has enjoyed broad support from tech groups and organizations. A coalition that includes Google, the American Library Association, and ACLU among others sent a letter (PDF) to prominent members of the House on Wednesday urging them to support the measure.

"Both of these measures would make appreciable changes that would advance government surveillance reform and help rebuild lost trust among Internet users and businesses, while also preserving national security and intelligence authorities," said the letter, which was made available by The New America Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has been chaired by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt since 2008.

CNET has contacted the NSA for comment and will update this report when we learn more.