Tech Giants Plead for Surveillance Reforms

Six giant U.S. technology companies co-authored a letter to ranking members of the House Judiciary Committee, asking for not only the ability to disclose details on National Security Letter requests, but to call for surveillance reforms.

Giant technology companies have been vocal about the need for more transparency with regard to the national security requests for user data they receive. But until now, they’ve stayed out of the political fight to address government surveillance, in particular by the National Security Agency.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo co-authored a letter to four lawmakers, members of the House Judiciary Committee, asking for not only the ability to disclose details on National Security Letter requests, but also for surveillance reforms.

“Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs,” the companies wrote in the letter, addressed to Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Michael S. Lee (R-Utah), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), and Frank James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.).

The letter came days after the latest Edward Snowden leaks that revealed that the NSA has been able to sniff unencrypted traffic moving between Google and Yahoo data centers by tapping overseas fiber optic cables carrying the data between front end servers and the respective companies’ data centers.

The tech giants also threw their support behind the proposed USA FREEDOM Act, a bill introduced by Sensenbrenner that would rein in the NSA’s data collection efforts, bring more transparency to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and enable companies to release information related to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.

In the past few months, these companies have fought hard to ward off the perception that they have been complicit with the NSA—beyond court orders—providing the spy agency with direct access to its servers and users’ data.

“Our companies have consistently made clear that we only respond to legal demands for customer and user information that are targeted and specific,” the letter says. “Allowing companies to be transparent about the number and nature of requests will help the public better understand the facts about the government’s authority to compel technology companies to disclose user data and how technology companies respond to the targeted legal demands we receive.”

Meanwhile, yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee pushed forth the FISA Improvements Act of 2013, which would enable the bulk collection of phone call metadata data to continue.

“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” said committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a statement. “But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place.”

Wednesday’s revelation regarding the NSA access to Google and Yahoo data, dated Jan. 9, said that in the previous 30 days, the NSA had processed more than 181 million records, which not only included metadata but email content such as text, audio and video, according to a Washington Post article.

Google chief legal officer David Drummond told the Post that the company has been concerned about the possibility of this type of snooping and has been extending encryption across Google services and such links between data centers.

“We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems,” he said. “We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform.”

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