Tech Titans Speak Out for More PRISM Transparency

After initially denying involvement in the U.S. National Security Agency’s highly controversial PRISM program revealed last week, Google and other tech giants that were named as participants now admit their involvement and are calling for greater transparency.

Google, for instance, on Tuesday sent a letter to the offices of the U.S. Attorney General and the FBI requesting that it be allowed to publish more data about the NSA requests it receives, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act disclosures.

“Google has worked tremendously hard over the past 15 years to earn our users’ trust,” wrote David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer.

“We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures — in terms of both the number we receive and their scope,” Drummond continued. “Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.”

‘We’d Like More Transparency’

Facebook and Microsoft have reportedly made similar appeals.

Even Twitter — one of the few big-name tech companies not involved in PRISM — has spoken up to support the move.

“Completely agree with @Google, @SenJeffMerkley & others — we’d like more NSL transparency and @Twitter supports efforts to make that happen,” tweeted Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel on Tuesday.

‘Their Reputations Have Been Damaged’

“This push for greater transparency is all about polishing [the tech companies’] public image,” John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, told TechNewsWorld. “It’s not clear how closely they cooperated with the PRISM program and to what extent, [but] it’s clear their reputations have been damaged, probably with good cause.”

Knowing how many national security requests, including FISA disclosures, have been received “could help by promoting more open public debate and more rigorous oversight by Congress,” Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel at The Constitution Project, remarked.

“The government has called such collection of Americans’ conversations ‘incidental,’ suggesting it occurs infrequently,” Franklin continued. “Disclosure of such numbers would permit us to test this assertion and likely help demonstrate the need for more robust safeguards for Americans’ privacy.”

‘We Have Now Sued Everyone’

The PRISM program’s gathering of data on all electronic communications of all Americans is “a clear-cut violation of not just our First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, but also a violation of the Patriot Act, because it goes beyond the Patriot Act,” Larry Klayman, founder of Freedom Watch, told TechNewsWorld. “You have to have some kind of reasonable suspicion — you can’t just grab everyone’s records because you feel like it.”

Klayman on Wednesday filed a class-action lawsuit against the Obama administration and the nine companies named in a key NSA document as partners in the PRISM program: AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo and YouTube.

Earlier, he filed another class-action suit against Verizon and administration officials over a court order instructing Verizon to hand over the phone records of its customers to the FBI daily.

“We now have sued everyone,” Klayman said. “It’s a huge undertaking, but we’re representing all of the American people.”

The PRISM lawsuit has “excellent” chances of succeeding, he added.

Legislation Afoot

Reactions to the PRISM revelations span both sides of the political spectrum.

A bipartisan group of eight senators led by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D.-Ore., and Mike Lee, R.-Utah, introduced legislation that would require U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to declassify significant FISA Court opinions so Americans would know the extent of the legal authority the Obama administration has in spying on Americans under FISA and the Patriot Act.

Sen. Rand Paul, R.-Ky., is reportedly also planning to file class-action lawsuits against Verizon and the companies named as working with PRISM.

“It’s hard to see how the collection of records on millions of Americans [under the Verizon court order] can meet even the relaxed standards of Patriot Act Section 215 when there’s no evidence that these people have any connection to terrorism,” The Constitution Project’s Franklin told TechNewsWorld.

Meanwhile, Demand Progress, Free Press and Progressive Change Campaign Committee on Wednesday delivered a petition with 100,000 signatures to Sens. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., and Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., demanding Congress investigate PRISM, disclose its findings to the public and act to curb excesses in the law.

‘Justifiable Outrage’

The Mozilla Foundation has also gotten into the action by launching StopWatching.US, an online campaign demanding an accounting of the extent to which governments are spying on people. A variety of organizations across the political and technical spectrums have supported the campaign.

“It seems likely that the government will increase transparency somewhat in an effort to dampen the justifiable outrage,” Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson opined.

That may be. Recall, however, that the Senate in 2008 gave AT&T and Verizon retroactive legal immunity for handing over voice and data information to the NSA without a court order at the Bush administration’s request.

Given that precedent, there would seem to be an equally good chance that history will repeat itself.

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