Tech Giants Demand Government Surveillance Overhaul

Eight major United States high-tech companies have called on governments worldwide to reform surveillance practices.

Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple and AOL want governments to ensure that data collection by law enforcement and intelligence agencies is bound by rules and focuses on targeted suspects.

They also want governments to be more transparent about the data they request.

“The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information,” said Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page.

“This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world,” he continued. “It’s time for reform, and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.”

What the Gang of Eight Wants

Some of the principles the tech industry suggests governments should embrace:

  • Governments should pass laws imposing “sensible limitations” on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data and should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes.
  • Intelligence agencies should only collect data or compel its production under a clear legal framework with strong checks and balances. Independent review courts incorporating an adversarial process should be set up, and important rulings should be made public in a timely fashion.
  • Companies should be permitted to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information, and allowed to promptly disclose this data to the public.

The call for independent reviewing courts and the inclusion of an adversarial process are a direct blow against the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is viewed as rubber-stamping the NSA’s requests without affording defendants or recipients of warrants the chance to be heard.

User anger over government surveillance is growing, particularly in light of recent revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency has infected 50,000 computer networks worldwide with malware, and that it is daily harvesting the locations of 5 billion cellphones around the world.

The Long, Hard Battle for Transparency

The Center for Democracy and Technology wrote the White House and Congress on these issues in July and November on behalf of coalitions representing various sectors of society.

In August, proponents of surveillance reform held closed-door meetings separately with President Obama and top administration officials about government surveillance.

Meanwhile, bipartisan support is growing for the USA Freedom Act, jointly introduced in October, by Rep. Jim Sesenbrenner, the lead author of the U.S. Patriot Act, and Sen. Patrick Leahy to rein in the NSA’s bulk collection of data.

All Good Things Take Time

Don’t expect any changes any time soon, warned Matthew Prince, cofounder and CEO of CloudFlare.

“The political process doesn’t work like the tech industry, where things change overnight,” he pointed out.

The problem is that changes in technology have overtaken the law.

“When the Patriot Act was passed in 2001, it was inconceivable that one could record every single telephone conversation ever,” Prince told TechNewsWorld. However, “technology has undercut the friction from barriers placed in the past on surveillance.”

For example, it is easier now to record everything than it is to selectively record various conversations, Prince said.

However, between legal cases challenging surveillance and legislative measures being proposed, “the Patriot Act is not going to be reauthorized in its exact same form when it comes up again for reauthorization,” he suggested.

The Act was extended for four years in 2011.

“There will be additional restrictions in place, and law enforcement and surveillance agencies will have to make a compromise,” Prince opined, “because the alternative is that it just won’t get reauthorized.”

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