Eight tech firms call for changes to US government surveillance

By Sooraj Shah
09 Dec 2013 View Comments

Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Yahoo and AOL have formed a group dubbed ‘Reform Government Surveillance' in a bid to reform the laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information in the US.

Many of the firms have moved to distance themselves from the US government after a report from the Washington Post claimed that US authorities had been actively aided in surveillance activities by Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo, Google, YouTube, Apple and PalTalk. The report seen by the Post stated that DropBox would also be signing up to the Prism project.

Further reading

Since the report was released, along with many others from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, the majority of the firms have vehemently denied involvement in Prism. Facebook and Yahoo subsequently asked for permission to publish details of national security requests they receive from the US government for user data.

Google and Microsoft also petitioned the court. Google wanted a court hearing on the matter to be made public, while Microsoft wanted to publish details of orders that have asked for metadata such as subscriber information associated with particular email addresses.

In response, the US government claimed that the companies should not be allowed to disclose the number of user data requests they receive from Washington.

Now the firms, along with other technology giants, have written an open letter to the US president and Congress arguing that the balance in many countries has "tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual".

On the new alliance's website, it states five principles which all of the companies are urging the US government, and other governments, to adhere to.

The first is to limit the amount of data the government collects and the authority to do so; the second is for intelligence agencies such as the NSA to only collect and process data under a clear legal framework that is subject to strong checks and balances; and the third is for more transparency for each of the companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information.

The fourth principle is for governments in general to permit the transfer of data and "not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country".

It adds that "governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country's borders or operate locally" – this may be in reference to the Brazilian government's proposal to compel US technology giants to store Brazilian citizens' data in Brazil.

Many firms' customers are put off by the idea of their data being stored in the US, where the Patriot Act gives the government the authority to access any files that might have some bearing on national security.

The final principle is for governments to come together to create a transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data cross jurisdictions – an improved mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT), where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, they should work to resolve the conflict.

"[The security of users' data] is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world," said CEO of Google, Larry Page.

"It's time for reform and we urge the US government to lead the way."

Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith said: "People won't use technology they don't trust. Governments have put this at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook added that the US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and "make things right".

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