Obama backs new surveillance legislation, but tech companies reject

A tech industry group said it cannot support the legislation in its current form

A tech industry group that has Facebook and Google as participants has rejected the latest draft of a U.S. legislation that aims to put curbs on surveillance by the National Security Agency.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday said it supported swift passage of the USA Freedom Act by the U.S. House of Representatives, and urged the Senate to follow suit.

"Overall, the bill's significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system," the White House said in a statement.

But the tech companies, which also include Yahoo, AOL, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and LinkedIn, have said in a statement that the latest draft opens up an "unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of Internet users' data."

The tech companies coalition, called Reform Government Surveillance, said it could not support the bill as currently drafted and urged Congress to close the loophole to ensure meaningful reform. The legislation has moved in the wrong direction, it added. The group did not give details of the loophole it wants removed.

In December, the tech companies called for the reform around the world of government surveillance laws and practices, with the U.S. taking the lead. Some Internet companies were charged in disclosures last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of providing to the agency real-time access to contents on their servers, which the companies denied. There were also reports that the agency was tapping into communications links between the data centers of Yahoo and Google.

Civil rights groups have also criticized the new turn in the legislation which is meant to end bulk collection of communications records by the NSA.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, is concerned about the new definition of "specific selection term," which describes and limits who or what the NSA is allowed to monitor.

The expression was originally defined in the legislation as "a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account," wrote Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. The new definition, which refers to "a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device," could allow for the use of broad selection terms such as a zip code. It converts an exclusive list of unique identifiers into an unbounded list of discrete identifiers, while explicitly adding addresses and devices as types of identifiers, Bankston wrote in a blog post.

"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," EFF said in a post.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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