Tech Companies Call for Limits on Government Surveillance

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In an effort to restore public trust in the internet, eight large and influential tech companies are calling for an international ban on the wholesale collection of data among other protections that balance the rights of governments, citizens and the internet.

Earlier this year, the extent of NSA surveillance was brought to the public by Edward Snowden, causing many to question government agencies’ practices of user information collection by tapping internet services like email, cloud storage and VoIP calls, or even sifting through secretly intercepting unencrypted data packets passing between private data centers.

In light of these revelations, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, are cooperating on a new campaign called “Reform Government Surveillance” that so far includes five principles for surveillance and an open letter to US government officials.

In the letter, the partners write, “We urge the US to 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.”

Balancing the Rights of Governments, People, and the Internet

RGS is calling upon governments to place “sensible limitations” on what user data they can request from service providers. It’s looking for a balance between a government’s need for data, a user’s reasonable expectation of privacy, and an overall trust in the internet.

Instead of gathering mass amounts of user data, It wants governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

Making the Court Search Warrant Process Less Secretive

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is one of the means by which government agencies can request information from tech companies. These requests are issued in secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court sessions.

Reform Government Surveillance is calling on the government to make the legal framework for information requests clear, and include an independent court system and an adversarial process (ie. allow a true defense for those who may be surveilled). Also, this body of law that is being created in secret, it said, should be made public in a timely manner.

Making Information on Requests Known

In June, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter were among the companies calling on government to be allowed to publish more details on how many secret requests they receive to hand over user data under FISA. The release of this information without the permission of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would violate the FISA.

RGS is calling on governments to essentially make at least the number and nature of government demands for user information publicly available.

Protecting the International Internet (and Protecting US Business)

In the European Union, where expectations of privacy are high, there is the Data Protection Directive which regulates the processing of personal data within the European Union, as well as various laws in specific countries to protect citizens from unwarranted spying. The notion that US internet services (and cloud services specifically) are more easily accessed by government agencies has hurt many of these US firms.

Any effort to restore trust to US-hosted services and the US internet will help protect the industry from foreign service providers like the German hosts involved in the “Email Made in Germany” campaign which assures customers their email is subject to the country’s customary protections.

Perhaps in the interest of leveling the playing field, RGS is proposing that governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

Establishing a Framework for International Data Requests

Partnerships like the Five Eyes intelligence community which unites data from its five English-speaking member countries, challenge the notion that international exchanges of information are done ethically.

RGS envisions a “robust, principled, and transparent” framework that would make requests for data across jurisdictions, again, weigh more towards the rights of citizens over those of governments.

It is unclear what plans the eight members of RGS have planned to bring their demands into the international community, but their initial efforts are geared towards reforming the US surveillance system which has impacted them the most.

About the Author

David Hamilton is a Toronto-based technology journalist who has written for the National Post and other news outlets. He has covered the hosting industry internationally for the Web Host Industry Review with particular attention to innovative hosting solutions and the issues facing the industry. David is a graduate of Queen’s University and the Humber College School of Media Studies.

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