Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter to Ask NSA for Greater Transparency on U.S. Surveillance

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Apple and the NSAApple, 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.

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13 Comments Leave Your Own

iJack

Let’s see, if you believe in the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory – and I do – then it might be fair to say that ‘three hops away’ means the NSA is spying on half the world’s population.

Jason Reese

Jeff Horn: I’m not sure what you are trying to say in your last ‘poly-sentence?’. is there supposed to be a comma or colon after ‘Government Fears’? That sentence(s) may have been thought provoking, maybe intriguing, possible profound even, however, due to your unwillingness to PUNCTUATE it, no one will ever know. Yet your first few sentences start out with plenty of symbols and dashes and operators, etc. Or it might be very simple. Your sentence structure and punctuation patterns likely reflect your political thought patterns… Inconsistent, misguided, lazy and poorly thought out. Thus making your statements entirely ineffective at conveying your opinion, both conceptually and literally. literally(pun).

Do yourself a favor and spend the extra second and a half to add the proper punctuation to what you write. Otherwise, there is little difference between your statements and what might have been written by a bird pecking at grain that has been sprinkled atop a keyboard. Write the way you should speak. I believe this quote from Taylor Mali tells it best…

“Contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY. You have to speak with it, too.”
-Taylor Mali from his poem titled “Totally like whatever, you know?”. Give it a read.

Bryan Chaffin

Hi Jason—note that I deleted the post you’re talking about before you posted your response. It was spam.

iJack, that Atlantic Wire piece I linked to talked about 4.74 hops being enough to hit everyone. If true, that’s even less than 6 degrees. I don’t have the math skills to figure out if that’s right.

All these rich tech giants working together on this (with the help of the stalwart civil liberties groups) will hopefully add some considerable weight to the transparency movement.

John Davis

I thought the U.S.A. was supposed to be a free country.

Why do they have to ASK for greater transparency?

furbies

What was it someone once said about privacy and the internet ?

Please excuse the poor paraphrasing:

“Don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t/couldn’t write on the back of a postcard”

skipaq

This is unimpressive. These companies are not rescuing privacy. All they are asking for is authority to report when and how often it may have been violated. It is like the boy yelling: “The dikes leaking again”. It would be better to stop the leak/violation of privacy.

Consider the future possibilities for those who wish to harvest our personal lives with PERSONAL electronic devices:
Fingerprint readers are just around the corner. Anyone for their fingerprints becoming a part of some government, corporate or criminal organization database?
Some bright scientist is surely working on retinal scan technology for things like Google Glass. Surely, no one would harvest this information.
One day these PEDs will be able to map our DNA. I can just imagine the things that can be done with this information.

But all will be just great because they are telling us they are harvesting. Remember that information is power. When the information is you, just how long will it be before that power is used on you?

Lee Dronick

Furbies, in the old days people could pass info via microdots and most inspectors would never notice them.

Yes, the gathering of info by governments, and businesses, has great potential for abuse of innocent citizenry. On the other hand there is a great need for counterespionage and counterterrorism. A traffic cop will hide behind a billboard watching for dangerous drivers, a counterterrorist cop will hide behind a server watching for dangerous data. In both cases those who are behaving are generally allowed to pass by, but we the people need to watchout for cops filling quotas.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Regardless of how this turns out, there will be two trends at work in the next few years. One is the move away from the cloud and into “the fog” or “the mist” (my metaphor). Many of the services provided by a single central server can be provided by multiple or even personal servers at the “edges” of the Internet. This will raise the cost for collecting all data for future analysis by national security and law enforcement significantly.

And that’s really the second trend. Future systems will pretty much be designed from the get go to make it extremely costly for authorities to snoop them all on a dragnet basis. You can’t fight against a specific search, but you can fight against this blanket approach. The battle isn’t technology, it’s economics.

iJack

“Why do they have to ASK for greater transparency?”

•••••
(Those are stars, John Davis. I would have used real stars, but it’s another thing TMO doesn’t allow.)

iJack

Those with great power will eventually abuse it. This has been consistently true in every society, every political system, every location and in every century. Unfortunately, this now includes us.

Edward Snowden (not ‘Andrew,’ Bryan) stepped up, and is now considered a traitor by many.  The first few brave souls to man the barricades, are often called traitors. But what they are is always determined initially by the winners at the barricades, and ultimately by the long-view of history.

gnasher729

Skipaq: There is (a) how much information the government has requested, (b) how much information these companies have supplied, and (c) what the population believes. _If_ these companies have supplied less information than the population believes, then they will feel unfairly attacked, but don’t have the legal right to defend themselves. It would be obvious that they would want to be allowed to tell the truth, if the truth is better than what some people think. On the other hand, of course they might be bluffing - the situation might be worse than the public think, and these companies would know it, but would expect that the government doesn’t allow them to tell the truth (which the government wouldn’t if all the rumours were actually true).

I’d expect Apple to actually tell us the truth about our privacy when they are legally allowed to, and to tell us that they can’t tell us for legal reasons where they are not allowed to tell us. I’d also expect them to tell us which customer data Apple has access to or has no access to (“no access” meaning they can’t pass on that information even if they wanted to).

Lee Dronick

I have no respect what so ever for what Snowden did. Not that surveilance isn’t fraught with the potential for abuse, but I have doubts about his so called good intentions. Anyway, he is screwed, no one will ever trust him again not even his pals.

skipaq

Just to be clear about my thoughts on this. There should be no gathering of information on US citizens without a proper search warrant. Granting sweeping search warrants under outdated Patriot Act legislation should end. These expansive harvesting efforts should be illegal. Storing massive amounts of data on citizens by the NSA for later possible use must stop. Rather than transparency, we should be demanding an end to the harvesting and storing.

We also should get a national discussion of just what harvesting of personal data Google, Microsoft, Apple and whoever else in the corporate and private realms can do. We need laws protecting our personal information on our devices owned, rented or used in the cloud. Technology is way ahead of privacy rights. It is time to deal with the issues involved.

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