Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and 59 other tech companies, investors, non-profits and trade organizations have formed an alliance asking the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for greater transparency in U.S. surveillance operations.
The companies involved are often the subject of FISA warrants for information about user data and other information, and they want the government to be more transparent about it and to let the companies themselves be more transparent.
AllThingsD obtained a copy of the letter the alliance plans to send to the NSA on Thursday, which read in part:
Basic information about how the government uses its various law enforcement–related investigative authorities has been published for years without any apparent disruption to criminal investigations. We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national security–related authorities. This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use.
The group wants to be able to issue regular reports on how many requests they have received for customer information; how many "individuals, accounts, or devices" for which information was requested; and how many requests they received for, "communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information."
They want the NSA to issue a similar report.
Signatories to the letter include many of the highest profile tech companies on the planet, as well as civil liberties groups, trade groups, and venture capitalists. According to AllThingsD, this is a partial list:
AOL, Apple, Digg, Dropbox, Evoca, Facebook, Google, Heyzap, LinkedIn, Meetup, Microsoft, Mozilla, Reddit, salesforce.com, Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo, YouNow, Union Square Ventures, Y Combinator, New Atlantic Ventures, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, The American Civil Liberties Union, The Center for Democracy & Technology, Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press, Public Knowledge, The Computer & Communications Industry Association, Reporters Without Borders, and The Wikimedia Foundation.
Assuming the letter is released as plans, this marks a major escalation in pressure from companies on the transparency issue. In addition to it being the right thing to do (in my mind), many of these companies are at risk for taking hits to their reputations—hits that could be made worse simply because of the veil of secrecy that hangs over the NSA's surveillance programs.
Andrew Snowden brought these issues into the public spotlight when he released documents to The Guardian (UK) detailing a program called PRISM that allegedly scoops up data from some of the above-named companies. All of those companies have denied that the U.S. has back doors into their server farms, but it's clear that a lot of information is being slurped up by the NSA, including information on U.S. citizens not accused or suspected of a crime.
Earlier on Wednesday, the NSA's deputy director revealed that his agency is pursuing information three hops away from their original suspect—think of it as they suspect a bad guy, go after all of their friends, all of those friends' friends, and then all of those friends' friends' friends, which is just shy of everyone.
The Atlantic Wire has a well-written explanation of that development.