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Tech Giants Band Together Aiming for Government Surveillance Reform

December 9, 2013 - Written By Syed Sofian Rabbani

Despite their inherent rivalries, the top eight major tech companies in the US, have banded together to form an alliance aiming at bringing in reforms in the Government Surveillance programs. AOL, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and LinkedIn led by Google and Microsoft have formed an alliance which aims to pressurize the Obama administration for bringing in reforms to the Government surveillance program – through better laws and principles.

The Global Government Surveillance Reform’s website says it believes “current laws and practices need to be reformed“. It also lays out reforms that would ensure “government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight.”

This unified call for reforms comes on the heels of the summer revelations learned from the leaks by Edward Snowden – at the time a security contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden’s leaks brought to light the massive and clandestine mass surveillance data mining program of the NSA – PRISM. PRISM was publicly revealed when classified documents about the program were leaked to journalists of the The Washington Post and The Guardian by Edward Snowden during a visit to Hong Kong in June 2013.

The PRISM program mandates that any data mining efforts would require a court order to gain data inputs against specific persons of interest from the major telecom operators and tech companies. Apparently, NSA has also forked over millions to US companies to access information. But in October 2013, another major leak from Edward Snowden in the Washington Post alleged that the NSA had secretly been intercepting data from the main communication links that carried sensitive user information across Google and Yahoo’s global data centers. The documents suggest that the NSA, in partnership with its British counterpart GCHQ, was copying large amounts of data as it flowed across fiber-optic cables that carry information between the worldwide data centers of Yahoo and Google. The leaks led to mass protests against meta-data collection by government agencies.

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Other news also alleged that the leading tech companies – Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook etc. had complied in various ways with data requests by the NSA. This blatant breach of their users’ trust can be cited as the major factor forcing these organizations’ latest steps at face-saving. In October 2013, these tech giants petitioned the Congress to reform the US Government’s surveillance policies. Bruised by these revelations, these companies are now scrambling to repair the damage and are mounting the current campaign to urge President Barack Obama and Congress to set limits on government surveillance. They also urged the United States to lead a global effort to restrict and reform surveillance by various governments around the world.

People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, said in a statement. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.” Trevor Trimm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says that “it’s now in their business and economic interest to protect their users’ privacy and to aggressively push for changes.”

The group has proposed five main action points for the governments of the world – “Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information”, “Oversight and Accountability”, “Transparency about Government Demand”, “Respecting the Free Flow of Information” and “Avoiding Conflicts among Governments”.

On the website, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook says – Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information. The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right.”

Larry Page, CEO of Google also adds in his views – “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. 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.”

Tim Armstrong, Chairman and CEO of AOL, said – “AOL is committed to preserving the privacy of our customers’ information, while respecting the right of governments to request information on specific users for lawful purposes. AOL is proud to unite with other leading Internet companies to advocate on behalf of our consumers.”

An open letter addressed to President Barack Obama and Members of Congress is also available on the website, which says that “this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government”. We have reproduced the letter for you below.

Open Letter

Any surveillance by Government agencies requires cooperation from the tech companies, and come election season, these companies are also major political donors. Undeniably, this move is bound to put sufficient pressure on Congress to ensure some reform into the system. Though how far the impact of these reforms goes is pending to be seen.

We believe that Governments should limit surveillance to specific persons of interest and for lawful purposes, instead of using a broad-brush approach and undertake bulk data collection. What’s your stand? Shout it out in the comments below.