Microsoft Petitions U.S. Government for Surveillance Reform

The software giant joins Mozilla and several civil liberties organizations in calling for an end to the National Security Agency's bulk collection practices.

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Since Edward Snowden lifted the veil on the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) extensive spying capabilities, Microsoft has emerged as an outspoken critic of the government's intelligence-gathering tactics. Today, the Redmond, Wash.-based tech titan is once again imploring government leaders to rein in the NSA.

"Today, Microsoft and members of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, along with civil liberties advocates, sent a letter to the White House and Congressional leaders supporting essential reforms to the USA Patriot Act," announced Fred Humphries, vice president of U.S. Government Affairs for Microsoft. "As we've said before, these reforms must include an end to bulk collection and allow for companies to be transparent about the requests they receive for information."

In the wake of the NSA spying scandal, Microsoft compared the intelligence agency's actions to those of hackers—and not the white-hat kind. "Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an 'advanced persistent threat,' alongside sophisticated malware and cyber-attacks," Brad Smith, Microsoft executive vice president and general counsel, said in a December 2013 statement.

Microsoft, in the midst of its transition from a PC software maker to a "cloud-first" company, is worried that government attempts to access or intercept private user data will throw a wrench into the growing market for cloud computing services. The company cited similar concerns in a current legal battle over emails that are stored in an Irish data center and are being sought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Nearly two years after government surveillance revelations came to light, the U.S. government still has unfinished business to reduce the technology trust deficit it has created," remarked Humphries.

In the letter, addressed to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and several congressional leaders, Microsoft and its fellow signatories called for "a clear, strong and effective end to bulk collection practices under the USA PATRIOT Act, including under the Section 215 records authority and the Section 214 authority regarding pen registers and trap & trace devices. Any collection that does occur under those authorities should have appropriate safeguards in place to protect privacy and users' rights." Dozens of organizations joined Microsoft, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Mozilla and the Wikimedia Foundation.

The parties are also asking the government to enact new, more open rules for disclosing government requests for data.

"The bill must contain transparency and accountability mechanisms for both government and company reporting, as well as an appropriate declassification regime for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions." Currently, Microsoft is only permitted to publish vague statistics regarding requests for customer data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The company along with Google, one of its chief rivals, maintain that they have a First Amendment right to provide FISA information.

"Now is the time to take on meaningful legislative reforms to the nation's surveillance programs that maintain national security while preserving privacy, transparency and accountability," stated the letter.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...