In its first congressional testimony since Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified NSA documents, Google has warned against policies that would transform the internet from a free speech haven to a product of the surveillance state.
Congressional lawmakers are holding hearings to investigate what, if any, changes they can make to the surveillance policies that have outraged the American public as well as the international community. Representatives for Google spoke to a Senate judiciary committee convened by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) on Wednesday, dedicated to providing more transparency.
“The current lack of transparency about the nature of government surveillance in democratic countries undermines the freedom and the trust in most citizens cherish, it also has a negative impact on our economic growth and security and on the promise of an internet as a platform for openness and free expression,” said Google’s law enforcement and information security director, Richard Salgado, as quoted by Reuters.
Franken has advocated for the “Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013,” which would require the National Security Agency to inform the public of how many Americans’ data is collected by the intelligence agency, inadvertently or otherwise.
Phone and internet companies would also be allowed to inform their customers about government data requests. Google, in particular, has been a vocal opponent of the government gag orders that prevent company spokesmen from defending the company against charges of conspiring with the government to betray customers’ trust.
“Right now, as a result of those gags, many people think that American internet companies are giving up far more information to the government than they likely are,” Franken said.
Salgado has said that leaks about the NSA’s ability to bully Google into providing massive amounts of data is “a real concern” for the company. The international reaction, which is ongoing, could effectively create a “splinter net,” with other countries opting to create self-imposed barriers to prevent unwanted surveillance.
“You can certainly look at the reaction, both inside the United States and outside of the United States to these disclosures, to see the potential of the closing of the markets through data location requirements,” he told Reuters.
“That’s bad for all of the American companies, and frankly bad for the internet generally. This is a very real business issue, but it is also a very real issue for the people who are considering using the cloud and for those who currently use the cloud and may have their trust in it rocked by the disclosures,” he continued after the meeting.
Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, the NSA disagrees. Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told Wednesday’s hearing that the issue again comes down to national security.
“I think those thousand mathematicians have other things that they can be doing in protecting the nation…rather than trying to go through and count US person,” Litt said. "If you impose upon them some sort of obligation to identify US persons, they're going to take an email address that may be, you know, Joe at hotmail.com. And they're going to have to dig down and say, 'what else can we find out about Joe at hotmail.com?' And that's going to require learning more about that person than NSA otherwise would learn."