(Jeremy Raff/KQED)
(Jeremy Raff/KQED)

In an unusual show of bipartisan unity, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a funding bill Friday with an amendment, co-sponsored by San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren, that would limit the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency.

NSA would be barred from collecting the content of Americans’ emails and phone calls without a warrant — also called “backdoor searches” — if the bill becomes law.

They are called backdoor searches because the NSA is using a loophole under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to collect the content of conversations between non-Americans and Americans, says Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Kayyali believes this is an illegal interpretation of FISA and that the NSA needs a warrant to collect Americans’ conversations.

“There are certain things that there are just no justifications for, and accessing Americans’ conversations is one of them. Making the Internet less safe is one of them,” Kayyali told KQED’s Mina Kim. “It is an exciting thing to see that it did pass by such a large margin.”

Some members of Congress are still concerned about national safety, however, and want to see provisions that allow the NSA and other intelligence agencies access to a backdoor approach during times of urgent threats.

“One of the things pointed out during the debate is that there is very little evidence that any of this has really helped,” Kayyali says. “In terms of accessing an American’s information, that is what warrants are for. Judges sign warrants in the middle of the night”

The bill still has to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president before it becomes law, but the overwhelming support for the amendment (the vote was 293-123) signifies a better understanding of the extent of the NSA’s surveillance, Kayyali says.

“This is absolutely a win,” she says. “This is something that I think people from every end of the political spectrum need to be concerned about.”

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