- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2013

Eight U.S. technology firms called for an end to online mass snooping by U.S. intelligence agencies Monday as new revelations emerged that the National Security Agency has even monitored Americans playing online computer games like “World of Warcraft.”

Citing concerns about civil liberties, top executives from AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo said in an open letter to President Obama and Congress that the bulk collection of online communications by intelligence agencies should cease.

“The United States [must] 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 executives wrote. “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution … It’s time for a change.”

Concerns about privacy and civil liberties have harried the Obama administration in its attempt to manage fallout from leaks about NSA activities by former contractor Edward Snowden, whose latest revelations were of the agency’s surveillance of online gamers.

But technology firms also have financial — if unspoken — concerns about the surveillance because they provide the online communication, data storage and now game platforms that are subject to mass snooping that frightens their clients. Most of them have cooperated quietly with government requests for clients’ data, cooperation that is required of them by law.

In a set of principles expanding on the letter’s themes and published online (ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com), the companies demand for the first time an end to the huge-scale vacuuming-up of the communications of millions of people not even suspected of any wrongdoing.

“Governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications,” they said.

U.S. officials say bulk-collection programs are authorized domestically under the 2001 USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as amended in 2008. For foreigners’ communications abroad, a presidential order gives the NSA broad powers.

In addition, administration officials have said that such activities have thwarted several terrorist plots, and that analysts take great pains to avoid accessing unauthorized information.

Silicon Valley has been fighting back in the courts and in Congress as companies seek reforms that would allow them to disclose more information about secret court orders. Several of the companies also are introducing more encryption technology to shield their users’ data from government spies and other prying eyes.

Monday’s letter and the new anti-snooping website represent the technology industry’s latest salvo to counter perceptions that they voluntarily give the government access to users’ email and other sensitive information.

Critics of NSA programs welcomed the move by the eight companies.

“We are incredibly pleased to see these companies stepping up to support broad surveillance reforms, including an end to bulk data collection,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute in Washington.

Although the companies previously have asked for the right to be more transparent with their customers about how they cooperate with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, Monday’s letter is first time they have called for an end to bulk collection, Mr. Bankston said.

By doing so, he added, they have placed themselves firmly behind congressional efforts to reign in the NSA, adding pressure on the president.

Last week, Mr. Obama promised reforms to restore Americans’ trust in the nation’s intelligence agencies, but the administration has yet to offer any details.

Neither an independent review by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, nor an inquiry by Mr. Obama’s own outside advisers is expected to report before January.

Congress, meanwhile, is moving forward with legislation.

One bill, the USA Freedom Act, seeks to end any collection of Americans’ data unless they are under suspicion of criminal conduct. It is backed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and a member of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Other bills would give tech companies the right to reveal to their customers the number of times they were compelled by law enforcement or intelligence agencies to hand over data.

Currently, recipients of the bulk-collection orders are generally prohibited from even disclosing that they have been ordered to turn over customers’ communications.

By contrast, bills backed by the leaders of the intelligence committees in both chambers seek to codify in law the government’s authority to continue bulk collection.

The Silicon Valley companies also are waging an attack in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where they are fighting to be allowed to reveal more details about how frequently the NSA has been seeking user data. U.S. law prevents the recipients of national security orders from breaking down the number of demands they get under the Patriot Act. The companies contend that restriction fuels the erroneous perception that the government has a direct pipeline to their users’ data.

The government countered with a motion Friday arguing that it should be able to redact, or withhold from publication, parts of its justifications to the courts for barring such detailed reporting by the companies.

Technology companies also are concerned that governments outside the U.S. might set tougher rules for businesses to protect the privacy of their citizens, according to Joss Wright, a research fellow of the Oxford Internet Institute.

“It’s potentially huge,” Mr. Wright said. “Other countries around the world could make it harder for [the companies] to carry on with unrestricted data gluttony.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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