US Senate Intelligence Committee approves cybersecurity bill

The bill has been criticized by civil liberties and privacy groups because of its potential privacy implications

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee approved Tuesday a cybersecurity bill that would pave the way for sharing of information between government and the private sector on security threats.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, said that the committee had approved the bill in a 12-3 vote.

The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act has been criticized by civil liberties and privacy groups because of the potential privacy implications of the sharing of data by companies with the government. Information including communications content shared with the government could potentially be used in various law enforcement investigations, including the investigation and prosecution of government whistle-blowers, the groups wrote in a letter in June to the Senate Committee.

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, both Democrats who voted against the bill, said Tuesday that there was a need for sharing of information by the government and companies on cybersecurity threats, but demanded that there should first be strong protections for Americans' constitutional privacy rights.

"....we have seen how the federal government has exploited loopholes to collect Americans' private information in the name of security," the senators said in a statement, in an apparent reference to disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about bulk surveillance by the agency of people in the U.S. and abroad.

The bill seems to disregard the revelations about NSA surveillance and includes no new civil liberties protections, wrote Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology in a blog post ahead of the committee decision. "As with most Intelligence Committee mark ups, this one will be held secretly, thus depriving the public of much information about the matters the Committee considered," he added.

The bill requires the director of national intelligence to increase the sharing of classified and unclassified cyberthreat information with the private sector, and authorizes companies and individuals to share voluntarily cyberthreat information with each another and the government for cybersecurity purposes only, and after taking measures to prevent sharing of personally identifying information, according to a statement Tuesday by Feinstein and Chambliss, who also authored the bill.

It also provides liability protections for individuals and companies that appropriately monitor their networks or share cyber information.

"To strengthen our networks, the government and private sector need to share information about attacks they are facing and how best to defend against them," Feinstein said in the statement. "This bill provides for that sharing through a purely voluntary process and with significant measures to protect private information." One of the amendments to the bill adopted Tuesday further strengthens privacy protections in the bill, the senators said, without providing details.

A similar bill, called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but did not make it through the Senate after the White House stressed the importance of having privacy protections built into the legislation.

Mike Rogers, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the U.S. House of Representatives, and ranking member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger on Tuesday welcomed the decision of the Senate Intelligence Committee and urged the full Senate to move quickly to pass "this important legislation." The House has its own bill on cybersecurity and the two representatives hoped the House and Senate would come together to "craft a final bill that secures our networks and protects privacy and civil liberties."

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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