House passes CISPA cyberthreat sharing bill, despite privacy concerns

One opponent has expressed worries that the bill would create a 'Wild West of information sharing'

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a cyberthreat information-sharing bill that critics say will give U.S. government agencies access to the private communications of millions of Internet users.

The House late Thursday voted 248-168 to pass an amended version of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, even though the White House Office of Management and Budget has recommended that President Barack Obama veto the bill.

Civil liberties groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union, have opposed the bill, saying it would open up Internet communications to snooping by government agencies, including the U.S. National Security Agency.

But supporters argued the bill is needed to help private companies and government agencies fight cyberattacks. "There are people today who are literally robbing the future of America" by attacking U.S. companies, said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and lead sponsor of CISPA. "This is the one small thing we get to do to prepare for a bunch of folks who want to bring us down."

CISPA now moves to the Senate.

CISPA would allow companies such as broadband providers to share customer communications related to cyberthreats with a wide range of government agencies. The bill exempts private companies that share cyberthreat information in "good faith" from customer lawsuits.

But the CDT and other opponents of the bill questioned whether the information sharing from private companies to government agencies would be truly voluntary, when many telecom providers bid on government contracts.

"In an effort to foster information sharing, this bill would erode the privacy protections of every single American using the Internet," said Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. "It would create a Wild West of information sharing, where any certified business can share with any government agency, who can then use the information for any national security purpose, and grant that business immunity from virtually any liability."

CISPA would allow companies to share private and sensitive information with government agencies without a warrant and without proper oversight, the ACLU said in a statement.

"CISPA goes too far for little reason," Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel, said in a statement. "Cybersecurity does not have to mean abdication of Americans' online privacy. As we've seen repeatedly, once the government gets expansive national security authorities, there's no going back."

CISPA has support from several tech companies and trade groups, including Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, TechAmerica and CTIA. For years, tech companies have complained about legal hurdles to sharing cyberthreat information with each other and with the government.

The House vote was a "critical step forward" for the cybersecurity of the U.S., Shawn Osborne, TechAmerica's president and CEO, said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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