Congress Is About To Pass A Controversial Surveillance Plan By Putting It Into A Budget Bill

Sen. Wyden: “This ‘cybersecurity’ bill was a bad bill when it passed the Senate and it is an even worse bill today.”

A controversial plan to encourage technology companies to share threat information with the government is one step closer to becoming law. On Wednesday, Congress slipped the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) into the 2,000-page omnibus budget bill, effectively ensuring that the law will be passed along with the budget.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who has called CISA a "surveillance bill,” voiced his opposition to it again Wednesday, saying, “Americans deserve policies that protect both their security and their liberty. This bill fails on both counts.”

A bipartisan majority of lawmakers from the House and Senate support the bill and view it as a crucial tool to counter cyberattacks. The legislation would grant businesses legal protection should they choose to share cyberthreat information with the government, and other businesses. It would also establish within the Department of Homeland Security a portal where threat information would be collected and analyzed.

“This is an important first step to fight back against dangerous cyber attacks,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and a ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement Wednesday. As one of the bill’s main proponents, she said the plan will “address a significant drain on our economy and threat to our national security,” as the recent barrage of data breaches has disrupted federal agencies and private businesses.

But a vocal faction of tech companies, including Apple, Twitter, and Reddit, has joined Sen. Wyden to oppose CISA. They point to a lack of strong privacy protections in the bill and an absence of restrictions defining how the government can use the collected data. Sen. Wyden has also challenged the efficacy of CISA as a cybersecurity tool. He argues that many of the sophisticated hacks that have been cited as justification for the plan would not have been prevented even had the law been in place. Wyden likens CISA, and its incentives to share consumer information, to invasive surveillance powers.

Evan Greer, campaign director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future, called the bill a “disingenuous attempt to quietly expand the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.”

“It will inevitably lead to law enforcement agencies using the data they collect from companies through this program to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate more people, deepening injustices in our society while failing to improve security,” said Greer.

Even with the pointed criticism, CISA has been expected to pass for months. The main obstacle for lawmakers, since the Senate approved the bill in October, has been to reconcile different versions of the bill’s language. President Obama has expressed support for the law, and both chambers are expected to pass the omnibus spending bill, CISA included, before the holiday recess.

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