Tech Companies to NSA: Stop Your Rampant Spying on Americans

So now the government watches you play video games? It needs to stop somewhere.

(Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters; design: Lauren Wade)

Dec 11, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Ameera Butt is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, Merced Sun-Star, McClatchy newspapers and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, among others.

It’s time for the spying to stop.

That’s the message eight tech giants sent to President Barack Obama and Congress earlier this week in response to the government’s mass surveillance of Americans’ personal data.

Google and Microsoft, along with Apple, LinkedIn, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, and AOL, have outlined five principles key to global reform of mass surveillance and developed a new website called Reform Government Surveillance.

In a letter to the government, the eight companies said the government surveillance practices worldwide have encroached on individual rights in many countries.

The world first learned of the surveillance after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked sensitive National Security Agency documents earlier this year.

The effort to protect privacy marks a watershed moment in American history; thanks to the Snowden leaks, experts say there is more information about and confirmation of how the government has used advancements in digital technology to gather information that can have nothing to do with criminal or terrorist activity.

In recent weeks, we've seen revelations that the American government has gathered information on everything from video gaming habits to emails to cell phone locations, with little restraint or need for it.

“We are sort of seeing a sea change in public perception around surveillance, and this has led to a wide variety of opportunities to rein in government surveillance for the first time since 9/11,” said Rainey Reitman, activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The San Francisco–based nonprofit defends free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights.

In the past few years, EFF has been at the forefront, filing lawsuits to stop the government from spying long before Snowden came into the picture.

Reitman said two dueling bills are making their way through Congress right now: the FISA Improvements Act from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that she said would collect some of the worst practices of the NSA, including the bulk collection of information of people's digital communication, and an alternative being promoted by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that she said would attempt to rein in NSA surveillance and put stricter limitations on it.

“This is a fork in the road where Congress can choose to take steps to codify these terrible practices into law or make meaningful reform to stop these types of surveillance abuses,” Reitman said.

Having the companies come out right now in the middle of this debate and be firmly on the side of reining in bulk data collection is extremely useful, and it could tip the scales toward reining in the NSA in a meaningful way, she said.

Some of the principles from the eight companies dictate that the government should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications. Other principles say governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information.

The eight companies’ outlining principles are a “strong first step” in the right direction, Reitman said, adding they could have done more. She cited another website, Necessary & Proportionate, that is trying to end mass surveillance globally and uses principles that are more robust.

“Many of those principles are in alignment with what these companies just signed up for,” Reitman said. “There is definitely [a] similar vein between the two [websites].”

A principle from the Necessary & Proportionate website about not creating back doors could have been included in the companies’ list, she added.

The eight companies stated in the open letter this week that they are focused on keeping users’ data secure and deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on their networks and are pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.

“We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight,” the letter said.

Mountain View–based Google’s CEO, Larry Page, echoed that sentiment and urged the U.S. government to lead the way.

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,” Page said in a statement.

Big Internet companies are worried dragnet surveillance is undermining consumer trust, said Reitman.

Consumer data is being stored by these companies that is sensitive and can include financial, medical, and personal information.

“Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it,” said Brad Smith, general counsel for Microsoft, in a statement, adding that people won’t use technology they don’t trust.

The long-term economic repercussions of the surveillance may not be known, Reitman said, noting that this type of surveillance could create opportunities for international companies that aren’t based in the United States to compete with many of these American companies that have really owned the technology field in a huge way.

“This means that we might see competitors show up in a year or two, and international folks, who are nervous about trusting their data with American companies, might trust it with a company who isn’t based in the United States,” she said.

NSA has argued it has free rein to collect information on people around the world, she said.

“There is increasing concern, especially for people who are outside the U.S.—maybe some of these big-name American companies are a little too cozy with the NSA,” Reitman said. “That’s the message that a lot of these companies are trying to push back on, [and] undermining their ability to grow their market overseas.”

The EFF has had dialogue with most, if not all, of the tech companies on the list, she said.

LinkedIn has filed a brief in one of the EFF lawsuits, Reitman said, but she didn’t know where the rest of the companies stood with their briefs.