Google Voices Support for Surveillance Reform Bill

The USA Freedom Act, which would allow Internet firms to disclose more details of government requests for customer data, is an important step in right direction, the company says.

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Google has voiced its support for a surveillance reform bill introduced in Congress this week that, among other things, would allow Internet firms to disclose more details of secret requests they receive from the government for customer data.

Susan Molinari, Google's vice president for Americas Public Policy and Government Relations, called the bill, dubbed the USA Freedom Act, an important step in advancing the goals of the Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) coalition to which the company belongs.

"While the USA Freedom Act of 2015 does not address the full panoply of reforms that Congress ought to undertake it represents a significant down payment on broader government surveillance reform," Molinari said in a blog post.

The RGS coalition, whose members also include Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Dropbox, was created in 2013 in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leaks on the National Security Agency's (NSA's) data collection activities.

Snowden's revelations that the NSA had collected a lot of its data from servers and networks belonging to Google, Yahoo and others focused a lot of attention on the ability and willingness of major U.S. Internet providers to resist government demands for customer data in their control.

The leaks raised questions that persist about U.S. government access to data stored in the cloud by American Internet service providers. Some had expected the concerns would lead to cloud services customers—especially in Europe, Asia and other regions—ditching U.S. providers in favor or more localized options.

Those fears have not quite materialized. But Google, Microsoft and others have pressed the government for permission to disclose more details of the data that they have been required to provide law enforcement under the aegis of existing surveillance laws. Currently, the laws forbid Google and others from publicly disclosing anything but the barest of details about government customer data requests.

The USA Freedom Act, introduced this week in the House and Senate, would loosen, but not entirely lift, some of those restrictions. If the bill becomes law, it would allow Google and others to disclose both the volume and scope of national security demands in more granular detail than they are allowed to currently.

It would also end the bulk collection of telephony and Internet metadata by the government and create new accountability and oversight mechanisms over the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that issues many of the orders used by the government to collect the data.

This week's bill is not the first attempt at surveillance reform since the Snowden leaks. Last year, Senate lawmakers introduced but ultimately failed to pass what some like the Electronic Frontier Foundation consider a stronger version of the current USA Freedom Act.

Like last year's bill, the new version too seeks to end bulk data collection under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the EFF noted. The bill seeks to restrict data collection to specific selected terms and only with articulable suspicion in order to prevent the NSA and others from indiscriminately collecting data on flimsy pretexts.

But there are several other important issues the bill fails to address, EFF Legislative Assistant Mark Jaycox and Activism Director Rainey Reitman said. The bill for instance does not address untargeted surveillance of innocent people nor does it put limits on the government's practice of collecting "upstream" data from the Internet backbone, they noted.

However, "while not as powerful as a comprehensive reform bill banning bulk surveillance under all legal authorities, passing USA Freedom is a step in the right direction," they added.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.