The U.S. House of Representatives voted on June 19, 2014 to limit the NSA’s ability to spy on American citizens without warrants. An amendment to a defense appropriations bill, this step towards surveillance reform is a step back from post-9/11 powers and was back by both Democrats and Republicans.
The specific type of search that was banned was the “backdoor search,” a provision of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act (FAA). The details of this warrantless search were first revealed to the public in August 2013 by the Guardian after the Snowden leaks. The backdoor search is a broad search that allows government officials to spy on Americans as long as the official “targets” of surveillance are foreign.
Typically, any search in the U.S. demands an individualized warrant; this is required by the Fourth Amendment. However, the FAA allows judges to grant permission to the NSA to run surveillance programs without specifying particular targets for the surveillance. An example of this kind of program is the PRISM program which allows the NSA to use private information about users of Google and Facebook.
Using these search techniques the NSA gathers email messages, text messages, and other communications. All data that the NSA collects in these searches gets stored in databases, and the NSA takes the position that it can search its databases and use it as it sees fit. Civil liberties advocates argue that the “targeting” of backdoor searches is not protective of the rights of Americans. They argue that the distinction between who is actually targeted in these searches is meaningless when the result—mass, warrantless collection of American data—is the same.
Most experts agree that this legislation is not a sweeping reform, but is an important step towards privacy reform. In addition to banning the use of any federal money to fund backdoor searches, the legislation would also prevent both the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from making manufacturers add technical backdoor functions in their products.
Before the legislation becomes law, several things need to happen. The bill with its amendments must first be approved by the House, and then its Senatorial twin legislation must pass in the Senate. Finally, President Obama needs to sign it. If the Senate doesn’t pass it or Obama vetoes it, the bill may stall.