CISPA Bill: 5 Main Privacy Worries

Privacy rights groups have launched a week of protests against the House bill, warning that CISPA will weaken current wiretapping and electronic communication laws.
Does the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) threaten people's privacy in unacceptable ways?

That's one criticism being leveled at CISPA, the House cybersecurity bill introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) in November, 2011. Many privacy watchers, notably, have said that the 11-page bill, which focuses on government monitoring, suffers a similar problem to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was defeated earlier this year after a wave of mass protests. Namely, the language of CISPA is so broad, that while it attempts to tackle a real issue--in this case, government monitoring--it may spur unintended and detrimental side effects.

As a result, numerous civil rights groups--including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Reporters Without Borders--announced Monday that they were launching a "Stop Cyber Spying" week of protests against CISPA, before a scheduled House of Representatives vote on the bill next week.

What are the privacy-related worries with CISPA? Civil liberties groups have detailed 5 main concerns:

1. Widespread Employee Monitoring. The CISPA bill states that any business can "use cybersecurity systems to identify and obtain cyber threat information to protect [its] rights and property"--which privacy watchers said will include email or Facebook message contents--while having immunity from prosecution or lawsuits under any other law. According to the EFF, that provision would subvert privacy protections offered by existing wiretapping laws and electronic privacy communications laws, allowing companies to "bypass all existing laws, as long as they claim a vague 'cybersecurity' purpose," without threat of reprisal.

[ What can enterprises learn from a recent security fight against Anonymous? See Anonymous Vs. DNS System: Lessons For Enterprise IT. ]

2. No Information-Sharing Restrictions. Another criticism of CISPA is that, as worded, it doesn't restrict the reasons for which information may be gathered. "It lacks meaningful use restrictions--it should be made clear that information shared for cybersecurity should be used for cybersecurity purposes, not unrelated national security purposes or criminal investigations," said CDT senior counsel Greg Nojeim in a statement.

3. Information May Be Shared With NSA. Under CISPA, companies could voluntarily share any communications they like with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "After collecting your communications, companies can then voluntarily hand them over to the government with no warrant or judicial oversight whatsoever as long is the communications have what the companies interpret to be 'cyber threat information' in them," said the EFF. DHS would also then be free to share the information with other government agencies, including the National Security Agency, over which there's little oversight, according to civil rights groups.

4. Bill May Encourage Broad Surveillance. As with SOPA and PIPA, many privacy watchers aren't lobbying for no legislation. Rather, privacy groups say that they want more carefully constructed bills, which take into account existing civil liberties, and which monitor government access to people's personal communications. "We need cybersecurity legislation, not surveillance legislation," said CDT President Leslie Harris, in a statement criticizing CISPA.

5. CISPA Alternatives Do Exist. Better alternatives to CISPA may already exist, according to privacy groups. For example, the CDT is backing a different cybersecurity bill, known as the PRECISE Act, which was written by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). According to the CDT, that bill "has information-sharing language that offers a better alternative to CISPA, balancing cybersecurity, industry, and civil liberties concerns." Might CISPA succeed where SOPA and PIPA failed? Last week, members of the hacktivist group Anonymous launched a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Boeing, as well as the trade associations TechAmerica and USTelecom, all of which have publicly backed CISPA.

In other words, before CISPA might pass into law, you can expect to see the fight to scuttle CISPA intensify.

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