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The pushback against the NSA we’ve been waiting for

Mon, 12/16/2013 - 3:57pm
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

Politics often makes for strange bedfellows. So when you see the logos of Facebook, Google and Yahoo along with Microsoft and tech companies side-by-side and consider the vast amount of users they serve, there’s a good chance it pertains to a matter of importance to both Washington and just about everyone in our connected world.

Last week, eight of the largest tech companies – most whose businesses are primarily Internet-based -- wrote an open letter to politicians asking them to stop collecting user information in massive quantities, and to reform the government surveillance practices. Although the letter does not call out the government of any particular nation, it appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, several Washington D.C.-based publications and on a web site – www.reformgovernmentsurveillance.com – no doubt a thinly veiled reaction and criticism of the grand scale of surveillance conducted by the NSA that was recently revealed by Edward Snowden.

The signatories outlined five principles:

1)    A limit to governments’ authority to collect users’ information – “codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data…” and not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.”

2)    Oversight and accountability – “Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process.”

3)    Transparency about government demands

4)    Respecting free flow of information -- “(Governments) should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country…. (and) should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

5)    Avoiding conflicts among governments – Different jurisdictions would work out the differences involving lawful requests for data.

Of course, these firms did not just gain a sudden interest in protecting their users’ privacy. User data is gold at any business that gets revenue from advertising. They want to regain the trust their customers have in their services and reassure some foreign governments who are rightfully angry that their citizens receive very little protection against NSA surveillance. Although this letter can be dismissed as simply a matter of enlightened self-interest, it is still good news for the individual user who values their privacy.

First, they are urging the U.S. government to revamp its surveillance policies at a time when there is legislation designed to bolster the NSA’s surveillance practices (FISA Improvement Act). While there’s much to be said for grassroots efforts to affect policy, time and again our representatives in Washington have shown that they pay particular attention to corporate needs. Congress will likely think twice about upsetting the corporate community. Also, limitations on government overreach is simply a very worthwhile goal. Unlike the private sector that makes fortunes collecting and trading personal data, governments have the power to arrest people and have been known to blackmail. Even if you feel you have nothing to hide, governments can possibly make false assumptions about an individual based on their dossier. Governments are supposed respect the people whose taxes support them. Finally, the tech companies’ pushback against government surveillance – which includes some encryption-based defenses by the companies themselves – will hopefully educate the general public about the NSA’s practices so it may engage with Congress and The President to the point where the people may actually hold their representatives accountable for intruding on their privacy.

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