In the last few weeks, we’ve pointed out that the House of Representatives have been attaching a bunch of interesting amendments to appropriations bills to block surveillance. Last week, for example, there was overwhelming support for an amendment to an appropriations bill that would block funding from NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology) for helping the NSA or CIA undermine encryption. Other amendments blocked funds being used by the DOJ/FBI to force companies to put backdoors into encryption. Other amendments stripped out funding for warrantless use of stingrays.
Now, with the focus on defense appropriations, it appears that Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Thomas Massie are pushing a repeat amendment of last year’s bill to block funding for two different kinds of “backdoors” used in surveillance. You can see the amendment here.
There are two key parts to this. The first would block Defense funds from being used for so-called backdoor searches of information collected via the infamous Section 702 “upstream” collection program. We knew that the NSA felt that it was fine to sniff through these so-called “incidental” collections of information, but as we learn more and more about how they do so, the more worried we should be. These backdoor searches are a way for the NSA to spy on many people without ever needing to get a warrant — and this amendment would block that in cases where the government is searching for information on a US person through that database of info:
Except as provided in subparagraph (b), none of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used by an officer or employee of the United States to conduct a search of a collection of communications acquired under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1881a) in an effort to find communications of a particular United States person (other than a corporation).
The second part of the amendment would block funding for having the federal government demand products have backdoors in them:
Except as provided in subsection (b), none of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used by an officer or employee of the United States to mandate or request that a manufacturer, developer, or seller of covered products design or alter the security functions in its product or service to allow the surveillance of any user of such product or service, or to allow the physical search of such product, by any agency.
There is some overlap with some of those earlier amendments we talked about from last week, but from different funding bills, so these are an important way to make sure funding for such programs doesn’t continue via other channels. Last year, this was the amendment that passed overwhelmingly, surprising many in the intelligence community. And there are some indications that it has even more support this year, as more and more Representatives area aware of intelligence community abuse of surveillance powers. Unfortunately, last year, this amendment was later stripped out, but if support for it continues to grow it’ll be impossible to block it forever.