The Senate Intelligence Committee approved a bill Thursday seeking to increase the sharing of digital data between the government and private sector, marking the first serious move to upgrade the nation's cyber defenses since the crippling hack on Sony Pictures late last year.
In a closed-door meeting, the panel advanced 14-1 the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, which would provide expanded legal liability to companies so they more easily share digital data with the government—an arrangement the bill's backers say would help detect, prevent, and respond to cyber intrusions.
The bill's passage comes despite concerns from privacy advocates that the measure will bolster the government's powers to conduct even more surveillance on Americans.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr called the vote a "truly historic" step forward that will allow companies to deploy "different defense mechanisms" to block and limit cyberattacks.
"This bill will not prevent [all cyberattacks] from happening," Burr told reporters. But he added that the legislation would have gone a long way in minimizing the damage wrought by recent hacks on companies ranging from Anthem Insurance to Home Depot.
Only Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a staunch civil-liberties advocate, opposed the measure, calling it "a surveillance bill by another name."
"Cyberattacks and hacking against U.S. companies and networks are a serious problem for the American economy and for our national security," Wyden said in a statement immediately after the vote. "It makes sense to encourage private firms to share information about cybersecurity threats. But this information sharing is only acceptable if there are strong protections for the privacy rights of law-abiding American citizens."
The vote marks Congress's first major step on cyber vulnerabilities since last year's Sony hack made data security a top priority for the White House and lawmakers in both parties. It also arrives amid a string of hacks, such as the recent theft of data of some 80 million Anthem Insurance customers.
Senate leadership has indicated it wants to move quickly on the information-sharing bill. An aide for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the legislation was a "priority" but did not yet have a timetable for hitting the floor. Burr indicated a floor vote could happen as soon as April.
"14-1 means I have all the confidence in the world to go to Sen. McConnell and get this expedited," Burr said.
The measure still faces several potential roadblocks—and chief among them are the privacy concerns that helped stall the bill's progress last summer.
After the Senate intelligence committee passed a similar version on a 12-3 vote, that bill failed to gain traction amid concerns that it would pave the way for companies such as Google and Facebook to share more personal data with intelligence agencies. Under the bill, cyber information is routed through the Department of Homeland Security, which can then be shared in real-time with other government agencies.