Technology powers like Apple and Google have coalesced to register a lobbyist in Washington to focus on government surveillance reform in an effort to maintain credibility following NSA spying disclosures that often implicated them as accomplices.
On Thursday AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo formed the “Reform Government Surveillance” coalition, motivated to influence policy in the nation’s capital. The new coalition hired Monument Policy Group, which has previously worked with Microsoft and LinkedIn, to handle the lobbying operations.
After the beginning of spying revelations - supplied by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden - the companies often chose to stay quiet about desired reforms, if they weren’t already forced to by the US, as has been the case with transparency efforts. But as it has become more apparent that surveillance disclosures have had or could have an impact on their business interests, the companies have chosen to act.
In late June, the US Department of Justice relented, albeit in a modest manner, to tech companies’ requests to reveal more information about how much data is demanded of them by government surveillance operations. The companies will now be able to report on national security letters - in which information is demanded independent of court authority - as well as requests ordered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Yet how they report will be limited to broad numerical ranges on the volume of orders and the number of accounts affected.
The companies had been barred from revealing even that amount of limited insight into its cooperation with the US. Silicon Valley, faced with questions about their own trustworthiness and culpability since early Snowden disclosures in June, has increasingly spoken out about it desire to provide more insight into how user data was handled and how easy it has been for the US government to legally, and illegally, access private information.
Countries overseas, especially in Europe, have floated the idea of demanding tech companies be subject to new counter-NSA privacy rules that would require them have servers within a country’s border in order to supply services there. Such a data “localization” measures would mean significant cost expenditures the companies are, to no surprise, not enthused about.
According to Politico, the companies have increased advocacy for surveillance reform and more government transparency in each quarterly lobbying report since the National Security Agency disclosures began.
On Thursday, Twitter slammed the US for its transparency practices despite the new opportunities afforded the tech companies in revealing how often they are asked to comply with government surveillance efforts. It called the Justice Department’s offer a violation of First Amendment rights.
“Allowing Twitter, or any other similarly situated company, to only disclose national security requests within an overly broad range seriously undermines the objective of transparency,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s Global Legal Policy manager wrote in a blog post.
The companies’ efforts to boost transparency may come just in time, as the Washington Post reported Thursday that the NSA is seeking to expand court orders to compel wireless phone companies that currently do not offer the government its records to now do so, anonymous US officials said.
Meanwhile, current and former government officials claim the NSA is not collecting as much domestic phone metadata as has been reported. As of last summer, technological advancements and popularity growth of smartphones is supposedly limiting the NSA’s collection efforts. In 2006, the agency claimed it could handle nearly all of Americans’ phone metadata. Now, anonymous officials told the Washington Post that the NSA accesses and stores only as much as 30 percent.