Apple, other Tech Companies Push for Strong NSA Reform

The National Security Agency's data tracking and collection has gone too far according to several high profile tech companies that includes Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, and they're calling for serious reform. The companies have teamed up to push for government surveillance reform around the world with an open letter to President Barak Obama, and they have a new website where anyone can see their proposed changes.

Apple, other tech companies push for NSA controlsApple, other tech companies push for NSA controls

The open letter was signed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo!, and says in part,

We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change.

The changes the group proposed include limiting government authority to collect user information, better oversight and accountability, transparency for the numbers and types of data queries the government makes, the removal of artificial data blocking between countries, and better cooperation between countries to help protect user privacy.

This isn't the first time tech companies have banded together over NSA surveillance concerns. Earlier this year, Apple and more than 60 other companies sent a letter to the NSA asking to be able to give customers more information about the inquires it makes.

"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," the letter said. "We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government's national security–related authorities."

Concern over how much information the NSA is collecting as well as the methods used became a hot topic earlier this year when Edward Snowden exposed documents showing just how far reaching the surveillance had become. Mr. Snowden gained access to the documents  -- more than 200,00 of them -- as part of his job as a NSA contractor, and then gave them to The Guardian.

The documents showed the NSA was routinely collecting private user data en mass, was using back door systems to collect information directly from companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook, and was covertly intercepting data streams from many companies.

The surveillance, according to the NSA, is essential to ensure the security of the United States and to stop terrorist threats. One of the many concerns raised about the agency's actions is that it appears to have essentially unfettered access to any information it wants without oversight or restriction.

"Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Discussions into protecting online privacy have already started, although those talks have yet to turn into tangible changes in how the NSA and other government agencies operate. President Obama met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google vice president Vint Cerf, and several other top level executives from the tech industry in August as part of a White House outreach effort that was characterized as an ongoing dialog to better understand how to balance privacy with national security in the digital era.

The big issue for many companies is the concern that they're losing the trust of their customers because there ins't any guarantee of privacy. "People won't use technology they don't trust, said Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

That trust is something companies rely on to help retain their customers. If Microsoft Outlook users, for example, don't feel their emails are private they're more likely to switch to a different application regardless of whether or not it's actually safer.

Trust is a big part of customer loyalty and companies like Apple want to make sure they don't have to deal with repairing a tarnished reputation. Just as important, lost customers translates to lost revenue, and that's something businesses don't like.