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Civil liberties cry foul over NSA reform

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Civil liberties advocacy groups are disappointed and angered after a key House committee close to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) “watered down” crucial portions of a National Security Agency reform bill.

“The bill has been watered down far, far down even from the compromise that was struck when the bill was voted out of committee,” said Patrick Toomey of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“While it represents a slight improvement from the status quo, it isn’t the reform bill that Americans deserve,” the ACLU said Tuesday, according to the Huffington Post.

The USA Freedom Act originally intended to ban the US government’s mass collection of domestic telephone data, but secret negotiations between the House leadership and the Obama administration cut some of its crucial provisions before sending the bill for a vote in the House this week.

The original bill was passed through the US House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees this month garnering general support from the privacy and civil liberties community. Many of the supporters immediately withdrew their support ahead of the coming Thursday floor vote.

Another similar bill is on way in the Senate as the controversial call-records collection program is set to expire in 2015. If no bill is passed before then, the program will end.

The NSA will still be forbidden from collecting the data in bulk directly, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will still approve requests for phone records data from the telecoms.

New language in the bill only suggests that the NSA’s searches may be limited to terms “such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device.” The vagueness of such language worries privacy advocates.

“Any time they introduce ambiguity, which is what these changes do, that is a very worrying thing for us, because that is what got us here in the first place,” said Toomey. “Without there being a more precise definition, it seems like they’re opening the door to very bulky collection.”

The ACLU promised to fight for floor amendments to strengthen the bill’s privacy protections while other groups, such as Access and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, withdrew their support for the legislation.

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