Week after week for months on end in 2013, new allegations and reports have emerged about the online surveillance activities of the U.S. National Security Agency, and now, a group of the largest tech vendors in the U.S. have said, enough is enough.
In an open letter publicly posted on a new Web domain, titled “Reform Government Surveillance,” AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo have joined together to ask for changes to current laws and practices around surveillance.
The tech vendors have outlined five key principles that they want to see reformed. They include placing new limits on the government’s authority to collect users’ information, adding more oversight and accountability, and improving transparency over government data requests. The final two principles are about respecting the free flow of information and avoiding conflicts across government jurisdictions.
This new open letter follows a letter sent to the U.S. Congress Oct. 31 by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, asking for more transparency in U.S. government data requests in support of the USA Freedom Act.
American tech vendors have much to worry about when it comes to government snooping, and the risks are not theoretical. At the end of October, leaks published from NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden revealed how data center links from Google and Yahoo were being intercepted. Google has already taken steps to further improve its security, and just last week Microsoft made its stance known on how it would also defend against NSA incursions.
The irony of the whole situation, of course, is the fact that the tech companies that have signed the reform government surveillance letter all collect copious volumes of information from their own users. For example, Microsoft has long been complaining about how Google collects information about users and has pushed that message in its Scroogled campaign.
For at least the last three years, there has also been a “Do Not Track” effort aimed at limiting the ability of big Web vendors and advertisers to track users who don’t want to be tracked. The actual outcome of Do Not Track has been somewhat muted with varying degrees of privacy now available for Web browsers.
So the reality is that multiple vendors are already tracking and collecting user data, but the big question here is about potential government misuse. The NSA has long argued that its actions are all about protecting national security. As the volume of Snowden’s disclosures mount though, it has become increasingly apparent that the NSA’s activities have been very broad.
In fact a report in The New York Times today, claims that the NSA was even going after gamers in World of Warcraft and Second Life.
It’s important to understand that the tech vendors in the Reform Government Surveillance effort understand why the government should have some access, though they question the current activities.
“While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed,” today’s Reform Government Surveillance letter states.
Fundamentally it’s all about confidence and trust. If there is no trust in systems and services, then users will avoid them and that’s what the big tech vendors desperately want to avoid. The increasing volume of the drum beat for some type of reform on government surveillance is now hopefully too loud for anyone in the U.S. to ignore, but only time will tell, what will actually change. In the meantime, the fact that the big tech vendors continue to publicly push for change and reaffirm their own commitments to user privacy and trust, will likely be enough to placate users that the tech vendors are all trying to do the right thing.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.