June 18, 2014 | By Nadia Kayyali

Congress Decides This Week Whether to Shut the NSA Backdoor: Here’s How You Can Help

Update: The US House voted overwhelmingly to approve the amendment during a late night session on Thursday, June 19. For EFF's statement on the passage of the amendment click here. 

The NSA may seem like an intimidating giant, but it has a serious Achilles' heel— the enormous budget it claims from taxpayer dollars every year. While change to the actual words of the laws that govern NSA surveillance seems to be a difficult task, a group of representatives have decided to take the battle to the bank.

Within the next few days, the House of Representatives will be considering the 2015 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, H.R. 4870. Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. Zoe Lofgren have introduced a bipartisan amendment to the bill to prohibit use of appropriated funds for certain types of surveillance, creating real change to NSA spying.1 The amendment has the support of civil liberties advocates and Internet companies. But the House needs to hear from you. Tell your representative to vote yes on the Massie-Lofgren amendment.

How is this unfolding? Every year, Congress votes on the Defense Appropriations Act, which funds the Department of Defense. Every year, this bill also makes substantive policy through prohibiting or placing conditions on funding.

Last year, a bipartisan group of representatives introduced the so-called “Amash amendment” (named after co-sponsor Rep. Justin Amash) that would’ve prohibited funding for Section 215 bulk collection of telephone records, instead limiting collection to “tangible things that pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation.” Though it garnered incredibly strong support from both sides of the aisle, the Amash amendment did not pass. The final vote was very close: 205 in favor, 217 against. In other words, if just seven representatives had changed their votes from “no” to “yes,” the amendment would’ve passed.

Fortunately, after more than a year of disturbing NSA revelations, civil liberties defenders in Congress are taking another stab at severing funding for mass spying. The 2015 Defense Appropriations bill is on its way to the full House and an exciting amendment that would limit use of funds for some of the worst NSA abuses will be up for a vote.  

The USA FREEDOM debate has focused on Section 215, but there are other problems with NSA spying. In particular, NSA collects contents of communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and has acknowledged that it searches this information without a warrant for the communications of Americans (a practice known as "backdoor searches"). Furthermore, leaked documents have shown that the NSA was engineering backdoors into products and services, from encryption software to online communications tools like Skype—something that weakens the Internet and American business. The Massie-Lofgren amendment would prohibit use of the bill’s funds for both of these purposes.

The vote last year showed us that this amendment truly does have a chance to pass. Seven flipped votes is nothing, in Congressional terms. And where might those seven votes come from? It could be from either party. A look at the numbers shows support for the Amash amendment crossed party lines—the ayes were 94 Republican and 111 Democrat. The votes against, though, came reliably from NSA defenders like Reps. Mike Rogers and Nancy Pelosi.

That’s why you need to contact your representative now. Regardless of what party your representative belongs to, they need to know that NSA reform—in the form of the Massie-Lofgren amendment—is a key issue. This is not about political parties. It is about respecting the Constitution, and protecting privacy and civil liberties.

The vote happens within the next few days. There isn't time to send emails. If you want your Representative to support this amendment, you must call rather than email. Call now.

  • 1. The text of the amendment is not publicly available yet, but when it is a link will be added to this post.

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