Tech firms seek government surveillance reform

Google, Microsoft and Facebook are among eight leading cloud and tech firms calling for sweeping reform in how US intelligence agencies gather data in bulk and restrict the ability of service providers to inform their customers on the extent and nature of government requests for such data, according to an open letter published by the group today.

Eight cloud service providers – Apple, AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have published an open letter addressed to the US president and members of Congress calling on the US government to stop bulk data gathering for intelligence purposes.

The move follows a summer of leaks detailing the extent of the NSA’s digital intelligence gathering techniques, methods that continue to draw rebuke from consumers and service providers. Most of the companies involved are among those to have called for more transparency over the nature and extent of government requests for data immediately following the leaks.

“The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution,” the letter reads. “This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”

Instead, the government should codify limitations on its ability to compel service providers to disclose user data, limit surveillance to “specific, known users,” and allow service providers more transparency over government demands for user information.

“The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information,” said Larry Page, chief executive officer of Google. “This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world.”

“It’s time for reform and we urge the US government to lead the way,” Page added.

The tech companies are calling for governments around the world to adopt a charter of principles which include limiting governments’ ability to collect user information, improving oversight and accountability through a clear legal framework and the scrutiny of independent courts, increase transparency around government requests for data, and avoid adopting legal frameworks that conflict between countries.

The group also said governments, in responding to the surveillance revelations should not require service providers to build out infrastructure within a country’s borders just to be able to operate locally, a concept leaders in Germany and Brazil have openly flirted with.

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” said Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president, legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft. “Governments have put this trust and risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

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The latest move by the cloud companies is perhaps the most united, detailed articulation of the need for reform since details of the NSA’s bulk data gathering techniques were leaked earlier this year. But while these companies place most of the blame squarely on governments and largely seek public sector reform, some say service providers also need to assess how their own data retention practices play an important role in the broader reform process.

“This very public display of unity is essentially an acknowledgement from these large internet companies that the public has begun to lose trust in them, and as a result in the internet as a whole,” said Rafael Laguna, chief executive officer of Open-Xchange, a cloud-based collaboration service provider.

Laguna said that these companies seem to maintain a double standard of condemning governments for data surveillance, while at the same time “harbouring the unquantifiable amounts of data that governments wish to access in the first place.”

Google for instance has recently upset European data protection watchdogs for breaching data protection laws, with Spain and France arguing that consumers were not clearly told how Google planned to use their information before it was shared. France, which also wants Google to include specific data retention periods in its terms and agreements, has given the company three months to re-write its privacy policy. The company could face up to £1.3m in fines.

“Charity begins at home, and the first step to rebuilding trust in an open internet is to address their own data retention policies before pointing the finger elsewhere,” Laguna said.

“Too often the likes of Facebook and Google run such a monopoly that they define the terms in which the web is experienced – but even they recognise that this isn’t completely unshakeable; if people lose faith in their services and move to alternatives, revenues will take a big hit,” he added.

This article originally appeared on Business Cloud News


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