Late last night, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly (293-123) in favor of an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would end a small part of the NSA’s mass surveillance practices: conducting warrantless searches of U.S. citizens’ international communications (sometimes referred to as ‘backdoor searches’.) This amendment would also end the NSA’s ability to require or request that communications companies build in weaknesses to their encryption standards to facilitate surveillance. The full defense bill still has to pass the House and Senate before these provisions take effect.

This is a small but significant step towards reining in the NSA and restoring our privacy rights. If the amendment survives the Senate’s review of the appropriations bill, it would reintroduce a basic Fourth Amendment principle that the NSA seems to have forgotten: the government needs a warrant to search through your stuff, including your communications. However, it’s important to keep in mind how much more there is to be done. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that issues warrants to the NSA has hardly shown itself to be a strong oversight body, so requiring the NSA to get a warrant for these searches may not change much in practice. And this amendment doesn’t bar the NSA from collecting virtually all text-based international communications to or from the U.S.—it just changes one rule for how the NSA can search those communications. 

Here’s hoping the House’s latest move will motivate the Senate to strengthen the USA Freedom Act and pass a version of the Act that brings meaningful reform to other areas of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs. PEN is part of a broad coalition pressing the Senate to improve the version of USA Freedom that was passed by the House in May; a non-exhaustive list of the things we want to see fixed is set out in this joint letter sent to key senators on June 18. We are still in the early days of the fight to stop mass surveillance, and as the Senate considers the House amendment and the USA Freedom Act, we need to keep the pressure on.