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White House requests immunity for companies that surrender data to authorities

Just over a month after announcing plans to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data, the White House is preparing for the transition by asking lawmakers to give immunity to telecommunication firms that hand over phone records. According to the Guardian, the Obama administration privately provided legislators with a four-page request to serve as a guide for surveillance reforms. In the document, the White House said that it wants immunity for “any person who complies in good faith with an order to produce records.”

The request is in line with a controversial provision in the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008. The act provided retroactive immunity for electronic communication service providers that handed over phone data to authorities from Sept. 11, 2001 to January 17, 2007 under the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

A White House official told the Guardian that the provision is typical for surveillance laws. “This would refer to any new orders issued by the court under the new regime we are proposing. This is similar to the way the rest of Fisa already operates, and Fisa already contains virtually identical language for its other provisions, including Section 215,” the official said. Section 215 refers to a portion of the Patriot act that allows the FBI, even without probable cause, to compel any person or entity to turn over “the production of any tangible thing” so long as its for protecting against international terrorism.

Right now, there are two bills in Congress that relate to surveillance reform. The first one, authored by member of the House Intelligence Committee, would allow authorities to access phone records even without an order from a judge. A competing bill is the USA Freedom Act, which prohibits the kind of bulk collection of data enabled by Section 215. A supporter of the bill has warned that he may add an amendment for defunding domestic data collection. Both bills have been stalled. However, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a markup for the USA Freedom Act on Wednesday.

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