Snowden, Surveillance Prompt Tech Companies to Re-evaluate Privacy Attitudes

The EFF’s annual Who Has Your Back? report praises Apple and Yahoo for its gains in transparency and fighting for users’ privacy and civil liberties, while it singles out Snapchat for its shortcomings.

Technology companies have responded to the challenge to privacy and civil liberties unearthed by the Snowden leaks with a determined effort to increase transparency around government requests for user data.

Some have done a better job than others.

Large ISPs such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast published their first transparency reports, while tech firms such as Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft go to bat for user privacy in court, and in Yahoo’s case against the government in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which authorizes the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance activities.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published its annual Who Has Your Back? report on Thursday. The report is a scorecard judging the lengths companies go to protect their users’ data from government requests. Nearly every major provider from Adobe to Amazon to WordPress and Yahoo are evaluated in six categories, including whether they require a warrant from the government for content, whether they tell users the government has made a data request, to public reports on these requests and whether the companies will tangle with the government in court and before Congress.

Clearly, comparing this year’s report to 2013’s, the Snowden revelations have prompted a rapid change in policy on privacy inside these companies.

The EFF singled out Apple and Yahoo in particular, both of which merited just a star in just one category a year ago, but both this year were recognized in all six categories.

Yahoo was singled out because of a fight before FISC challenging the legality of a 2007 order for user data under the FISA predecessor the Protect America Act. Yahoo was required to keep quiet about its court battle, and ultimately, on appeal, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review ruled against Yahoo.

“Yahoo has a record of repeatedly challenging government requests for user data,” this year’s EFF report said; it also recognized Yahoo’s opposition to mass surveillance and its membership in the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition.

Apple, meanwhile, was busy last year; it published its first transparency report, and in that report it revealed that it requires court orders before handing over user data. The company also notifies customers when personal information is requested by the government and said it will challenge the legitimacy of orders in court if necessary.

Facebook is another tech company to earn a star in all six categories, up from three in 2013. Facebook also published its first transparency report last year, and has made it policy to inform users of government requests for data. The company also promised to fight in court for its users.

Major carriers AT&T and Comcast, however, lag behind the industry, the EFF said.

Neither require warrants before complying with government requests for data and neither inform users about requests for their data. As for taking on the government in court, only Comcast has demonstrated a desire to fight for user privacy in court. By comparison, Verizon has a slightly better record in that it requires a warrant or court order before handing over data, and it has gone before Congress in a plea for privacy.

The real laggard in the report, however, is Snapchat, which was recognized only for publication of law enforcement guidelines.

“This is¬†particularly troubling because Snapchat collects extremely sensitive use including potentially compromising photographs of users,” the report said. “Given the large number of users and nonusers whose photos end up on Snapchat, Snapchat should publicly commit to requiring a warrant before turning over the content of its users’ communications to law enforcement. We¬†urge them to change course.”

Clearly the Snowden leaks and subtle indications about the potential close ties some companies may have had with the government prompted an about-face in attitudes about policy and trust.

“Tech companies have had to work to regain the trust of users concerned that the US government was accessing data they stored in the cloud,” the report said. “This seems to be one of the legacies of the Snowden disclosures: the new transparency around mass surveillance has prompted significant policy reforms by major tech companies.”

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