House Passes 'Weakened' Bill to Curb NSA Spying

     (CN) - In a vote of 303-121, the House passed new legislation Thursday to restrict the National Security Agency's mass surveillance of Americans' phone records.
     The NSA may currently request phone providers to hand over data on their customers in bulk.
     Titled the U.S.A. Freedom Act, the bill requires the NSA to make requests for records tied to a "specific selection term."
     A previous version of the bill would have required the agency to provide "a term to uniquely describe a person, entity or account," but the White House was concerned that this phrase would be too restrictive if the agency did not yet know the name of its suspect, the New York Times reported.
     The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., expressed disappointment that the bill was weakened, but noted that he was "not able to close the door, lock it and throw away the key."
     A coalition of technology companies, including Google, Microsoft and Twitter, withdrew their support of the bill ahead of the vote, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation called the current version "gutted."
     "The new version not only adds the undefined words 'address' and 'device,' but makes the list of potential selection terms open-ended by using the term 'such as.' Congress has been clear that it wishes to end bulk collection, but given the government's history of twisted legal interpretations, this language can't be relied on to protect our freedoms," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement.
     On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said: "Certain key elements of this bill were changed. I think it's ironic that a bill that was intended to increase transparency was secretly changed between the Committee markup and floor consideration."
     Other congressmen stressed, however, that even a weakened bill is an important step in curbing surveillance.
     The bill marks the first time since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created in 1978 that Congress has limited government surveillance.
     "The NSA might still be watching us," Sensenbrenner said, "but now we can be watching them."