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Privacy Advocates Sound Alarm On Cybersecurity Provision In Spending Bill

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are many, many provisions in the massive trillion-dollar federal spending bill that Congress is expected to approve by the end of the week. We're going to focus on just one of them now - a cyber security measure. It's aimed at fighting the theft of data held by big companies by allowing those companies to share information with each other and with the government. But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, it has privacy advocates very worried.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Congress has been wrestling with the cyber security issue for years. And after each big data breach, from health insurance companies, retail stores and the government, the pressure on lawmakers to act only increased. The measure they've come up with says companies that have been hacked can share with each other the details of the hack or virus without fear of running afoul of antitrust laws. The bill would also shield them from being sued by their customers for turning data over to the government. That allows federal agencies to work with companies to ward off cyber-attacks. Proponents call it a team-America approach, but opponents, including Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not convinced.

RON WYDEN: My view is that any legislation that lacks adequate protections for American's privacy is not a cyber security bill. It is a surveillance bill by another name.

NAYLOR: Wyden and privacy advocates say the measure is flawed because while it stipulates that companies turn their data over to the civilian Department of Homeland Security, the data could still wind up with the National Security Agency or law enforcement agencies like the FBI if Homeland Security decides it's necessary. Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who supports the measure, says sharing the data on cyber-attacks within the government is crucial.

ADAM SCHIFF: And it doesn't make sense to say, we're not going to let the Department of Homeland Security tell the NSA what the malicious code looks like. That was a problem we had pre-9/11 when our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies weren't allowed to talk to each other.

NAYLOR: Schiff says the measure has privacy protections. The data turned over to the government is supposed to be scrubbed of personal identifiable information.

SCHIFF: And I think it well balances the need to share this information and protect ourselves from these hacks, which are the biggest invasion of our privacy, while making sure that any information that's shared is not abused.

NAYLOR: Schiff concedes that some data could be turned over to law enforcement if it contains information about a possible criminal action or could help prosecute hackers. Opponents, including Wyden, contend the measure fails to provide either privacy protection or much protection from hackers.

WYDEN: It is a very, very dangerous world. That is not what's in question. What we need are policies that protect both our security and our liberty. And I'm increasingly concerned that these so-called feel-good bills are going to give us less of both.

NAYLOR: Opponents are calling on lawmakers to strip the cyber security measure out of the spending bill, but that scene is unlikely. And the Obama administration has indicated it supports the provision. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.