CISPA

Interest groups protest CISPA secrecy

April 5, 2013: 2:10 PM ET

Hearings on the CISPA cybersecurity measure may be held as soon as next week - behind closed doors.

130306103814-washington-dc-snow-day-340xaFORTUNE -- The House Intelligence Committee, possibly as early as next week, will discuss the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) for the second time. And for the second time, it will do so behind closed doors.

The bill is designed to make it easier for private companies to share the personal information of their customers (otherwise known as American citizens) with the government in the interest of protecting the security of computer networks. In part, it would exempt companies from existing privacy laws. The "markup" session, where proposed amendments are debated, doesn't yet appear on the committee's schedule, but members are reportedly assuming it will be held next week.

Interest groups devoted to privacy and transparency are bristling at the secrecy, just as they did a year ago, before an earlier version of the bill passed the House and was rejected by the Senate. "The committee should consider CISPA in the light of day," says the Sunlight Foundation. "CISPA has the potential to affect the lives of every American and has drawn criticism from numerous privacy groups as well as the White House. Legislation this critical, and with this much potential to hinder the public's ability to hold their government accountable, deserves to be debated in full public view, not hidden behind closed doors." The foundation joined about 40 other groups including the American Civil Liberties Union to sign a letter (pdf) to the committee demanding an open markup hearing.

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The committee has said that the closed session is necessary to prevent the public airing of potentially classified information. But that doesn't mean that there can be no public hearings on any aspects of the bill.

The Sunlight Foundation advocates for a more transparent government. The group is troubled not only by the secrecy of the hearings, but by provisions of the bill itself that would keep "a broad and poorly defined swath of information from the Freedom of Information Act." In other words, if the public wants to know what private companies are doing with their personal data -- such as whether it's being shared with the government -- they can't find out. All data that is deemed "cybersecurity threat information" would be exempt. That definition is open to wide interpretation, Sunlight says, and is a "dangerous and unnecessary precedent to set."

But the public won't even know whether the committee has discussed such issues at least until after it votes on the bill. The House passed a similar measure last year, but it was rejected by the Senate. President Obama has promised to veto the bill in its current form.

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