Tech Giants Unite in Call for Surveillance Reform

Eight giant technology companies have formed an alliance called Reform Government Surveillance, calling for an end to bulk data collection of Internet activity.

Eight massive technology companies including Facebook, Apple and Google make up a new coalition calling for a reform of surveillance practices, which the companies say are undermining trust in not only their respective services, but of the Internet as a medium for communication and commerce.

The group, joined under the banner Reform Government Surveillance, co-authored an open letter to President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress that says the surveillance of Americans in the name of national security undermines freedom.

“The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual—rights that are enshrined in our Constitution,” the companies wrote.

This is not the first time AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have locked arms in protest of the National Security Agency’s activities since they were revealed starting in June in a series of documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The tech giants have repeatedly petitioned Congress and the Attorney General for greater freedom to quantify the number of court orders—in particular those issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—requiring them to share user data with the government. Currently, National Security Letters can only be reported in bulk and in buckets of 1,000. The companies argue that just clouds transparency efforts.

The group urged government to adopt five principles it explains on its website, starting with limits on the government’s ability to compel service providers to disclose user data and stop bulk collection of Internet communication. It also calls for intelligence agencies to operate under a clear, transparent legal framework that includes independent reviewing courts, which is currently not the case with FISC.

In addition to again requesting permission to publish the number and nature of government requests for data, the group asks government to allow data to cross borders without having to worry about legal loopholes that enable government to access data stored outside the country.

Finally, the tech companies ask that governments work together to avoid conflicting laws and develop transparent legal frameworks under which governments agree to operate when it comes to requests for user data.

“Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. “The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right.”

For their part, most of the companies in question have ramped up their efforts to encrypt data and connections between data centers that were tapped by the NSA. A recent study by the Electronic Frontier Foundation of the encryption practices of a number of leading technology companies and Internet service providers showed varying levels of encryption deployments. Most, for example, already deploy HTTPS be default on all services—Yahoo is a laggard in this area, though it has announced that it will do so early in 2014. Notably fewer have deployed either HSTS or Perfect Forward Secrecy, which experts are becoming more vocal about it becoming a common accepted practice.

“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 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.”

Recent revelations just add to the gravity and depths of the NSA’s surveillance activities; the Washington Post, for example, reported last week that the agency collects five billion cell records a day.

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft General Counsel. “Governments have put this trust at risk and governments need to help restore it.”

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