On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted 307-116 to pass the Protecting Cyber Networks Act, a bill designed to allow more fluid sharing of cybersecurity threat data between corporations and government agencies. That new system for sharing information is designed to act as a real-time immune system against hacker attacks, allowing companies to warn one another via government intermediaries about the tools and techniques of advanced hackers. But privacy critics say it also threatens to open up a new backchannel for surveillance of American citizens, in some cases granting the same companies legal immunity to share their users’ private data with government agencies that include the NSA.
“PCNA would significantly increase the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) access to personal information, and authorize the federal government to use that information for a myriad of purposes unrelated to cybersecurity,” reads a letter signed earlier this week by 55 civil liberties groups and security experts that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch and many others.
“The revelations of the past two years concerning the intelligence community’s abuses of surveillance authorities and the scope of its collection and use of individuals’ information demonstrates the potential for government overreach, particularly when statutory language is broad or ambiguous,” the letter continues. “[PCNA] fails to provide strong privacy protections or adequate clarity about what actions can be taken, what information can be shared, and how that information may be used by the government.”
Specifically, PCNA’s data-sharing privileges let companies give data to government agencies—including the NSA—that might otherwise have violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or the Wiretap Act, both of which restrict the sharing of users’ private data with the government. And PCNA doesn’t even restrict the use of that shared information to cybersecurity purposes; its text also allows the information to be used for investigating any potential threat of “bodily harm or death,” opening its application to the surveillance of run-of-the-mill violent crimes like robbery and carjacking.