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Privacy Advocates Urge Senate to Rein In NSA Data Collection

On the same day that Google, Facebook and other tech companies urged stricter reforms to the National Security Agency’s surveillance policy, members of the Senate debated whether a bill passed by the House went too far or not far enough in protecting the privacy of Americans.

"The NSA has shown time and time again that it will seize on any wiggle room, and there is plenty of that in this bill," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said at a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday.

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Most of the debate centered on whether language modified by the House defeated one of the major goals announced by President Barack Obama in the spring: to limit the bulk collection of data by the National Security Agency.

The USA Freedom Act passed by the House left the "specific selection terms" — which define exactly what kind of information the NSA can request — too vague and broad for some people and too restrictive for others.

"There is nothing in this bill that would prohibit 'Verizon' or 'Gmail' or the state of Georgia from being used as a specific selection term," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel with the Center for Democracy & Technology, a privacy advocacy group.

Image: Senate Holds Hearing On Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Reforms
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., listen during a hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on Thursday. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Geiger and other privacy advocates want to limit those terms to specific people, phones or physical locations. White House officials, however, argued that strict definitions could limit law enforcement if they were searching for something without the benefit of specific names or telephone numbers, like all purchases of a chemical in a certain area.

Some of the speakers had some choice words for former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who recently told "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams that he was trained as a spy and worked for the United States at high levels. Snowden kick-started the privacy debate by leaking thousands of classified documents last summer.

On Thursday, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss referred to those leaks as "Snowden’s treasonous exposures."

"My phone data is in there with everybody else," said the Republican senator. "I’m not worried because I’m not talking to terrorists, and hopefully I’m not talking to anybody who is talking to terrorists."