House approves cyberthreat sharing bill; privacy concerns remain

The legislation would allow some customer information to be passed to the NSA, opponents said

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to approve legislation that would encourage companies to share cyberattack information with each other and with the government, despite concerns that it would put new consumer information in the hands of surveillance agencies.

The House voted 307 to 116 on Wednesday to approve the Protecting Cyber Networks Act (PCNA), which would protect companies that voluntarily share information from customer lawsuits. Several digital rights groups and cybersecurity researchers oppose the bill, saying it requires data shared with civilian agencies, including potentially personal information, to be passed on to the National Security Agency.

Backers of the PCNA and another, similar bill before the House, the National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act (NCPA), argued the bills are needed to help companies fend off a growing number of cyberattacks.

Proponents of the bills, including many tech companies, have advocated for years for Congress to pass cyberthreat sharing legislation. Companies want to share the information but need assurances they won't be sued later down the road for doing so, backers say.

"Every day we delay, more privacy is stolen, more jobs are lost and more economic harm is done," said Representative Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "Let's stop sitting by and watching all this happen. Let's do something."

The second cyberthreat sharing bill, which has several similar provisions to the PNCA but also conflicts with parts of it, is scheduled for a House vote Thursday. House leaders plan to combine the two bills before sending legislation to the Senate for its consideration.

The PCNA and the NCPA allow too much information to be passed to the NSA, even after revelations in recent years of huge surveillance programs there, said Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.

"Congress is asking the American people for a blank check," Polis said. "Congress is asking the American people to trust the president" even after lawmakers and President Barack Obama have done little to rein in the NSA.

Critics say the bill would authorize companies to expand their monitoring of users' or customers' online activities and permit them to share "vaguely defined" cyberthreat indicators.The PCNA would allow law enforcement agencies to use the shared information for serious crimes and activities that "have nothing to do with cybersecurity," said critics, including American Civil Liberties Union, Free Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Supporters of the PCNA noted that it contains several privacy protections that were absent from earlier cyberthreat sharing bills, including the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), from 2013.

PCNA requires both companies and government agencies to check for personal data and remove it. It also prohibits private companies from sharing information directly with the NSA, instead passing it to a civilian agency information-sharing portal -- although the bill then requires those agencies to share it with the NSA and military agencies.

House members approved an amendment to the PCNA Wednesday that would require a government study of privacy protections in the information-sharing system. Another approved amendment would sunset the bill after seven years, requiring Congress to reauthorize the legislation.

Approval of the bill was a major victory for several large business groups. Supporters of the PNCA included the Financial Services Roundtable, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Information Technology Industry Council.

Early this year, Obama called on Congress to pass cyberthreat sharing legislation.

The Obama administration voiced support for House passage of both bills, but called on lawmakers to make significant changes to improve privacy and limit liability protections. The White House Office of Management and Budget called on the House to work with the Senate to improve the bill.

In addition, the bill may grant immunity to a company that fails to act on information it receives about the security of its networks, OMB said. The PCNA includes "sweeping liability protections," it said in a memo Tuesday evening.

"Such a provision would remove incentives for companies to protect their customers' personal information and may weaken cybersecurity writ large."

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 email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityprivacylegislationdata protectionBarack Obamafree pressInformation Technology Industry CouncilElectronic Frontier FoundationAmerican Civil Liberties UnionU.S. National Security AgencyNational Cable and Telecommunications AssociationU.S. White House Office of Management and BudgetU.S. House of RepresentativesFinancial Services RoundtableJared PolisAdam Schiff

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