Microsoft, Tech Giants Weigh In on U.S. Spying

Microsoft joins Apple, Google and other tech heavyweights in asking the U.S. government for more transparency over its surveillance efforts.

government surveillance

Microsoft and other big tech companies, still reeling from allegations that they help facilitate National Security Agency (NSA) spying, have joined together to voice their support for the USA Freedom Act, which would rein in the agency's surveillance activities

The Washington Post published a letter, dated Oct. 31, from several influential tech companies and addressed to the legislation's authors and sponsors in Congress, namely senators Patrick J. Leahy and Michael S. Lee, and John Conyers Jr. and Frank James Sensenbrenner Jr. of the U.S. House of Representatives. In it, they stated that they "welcome the debate about how to protect both national security and privacy interests" and that they "applaud the sponsors of the USA Freedom Act for making an important contribution to this discussion."

In a rare show of solidarity, the letter was signed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Alluding to the headline-grabbing disclosures of classified information provided by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the companies argue that the "volume and complexity of the information that has been disclosed in recent months has created significant confusion here and around the world, making it more difficult to identify appropriate policy prescriptions." In the latest round of revelations, the NSA is said to have the ability to intercept all Google and Yahoo traffic.

The companies also expressed their frustration at being legally hamstrung in providing more detailed data about law-enforcement requests for user data. "Allowing companies to be transparent about the number and nature of requests will help the public better understand the facts about the government's authority to compel technology companies to disclose user data and how technology companies respond to the targeted legal demands we receive," they wrote.

Microsoft has made repeated calls to allow it to come clean on some of the most secretive demands for user information, namely Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests.

Microsoft General Counsel Bradford L. Smith appealed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a July 16 letter "to get involved personally in assessing the constitutional issues raised by Microsoft and other companies that have repeatedly asked to share publicly more complete information about how we handle national security requests for customer information." This followed a June 19 motion filed on June 19 with the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in which the company asserted a First Amendment right to provide information on FISA requests.

They also hope to dispel the notion that they are complicit in the NSA's alleged capability to pull data directly from their data centers. "Transparency in this regard will also help to counter erroneous reports that we permit intelligence agencies 'direct access' to our companies' servers or that we are participants in a bulk Internet records collection program," added the companies.

"Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs," added Microsoft, Google and their peers.

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...