WASHINGTON – Eight of the nation’s largest technology companies called on President Obama and Congress on Monday to impose strict new curbs on surveillance. If enacted, the proposal would dramatically reshape intelligence operations that U.S. officials have portrayed as integral to the war on terrorism.
The uncommonly unified front – featuring companies, such as Google and Microsoft, that compete fiercely on business matters – underscored the deep alarm among technology leaders over revelations that the National Security Agency has collected user data far more extensively than the companies understood, in many cases with little or no court oversight.
In a letter to U.S. leaders published in several newspapers Monday, the coalition calls for an end to bulk collection of user information – such as email, address books and video chats – and for the enactment of significant new protections when courts consider specific surveillance requests.
“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 letter says. “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.”
In addition to Microsoft and Google, the signers are Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter.
The proposals include a call for strong judicial oversight and an adversarial process for surveillance requests, including at the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The proposals bring the companies closer to the views espoused by privacy and human rights advocates, as well as to the USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It is one of several bills drafted in response to the controversy over the revelations.
Reports in the Washington Post and in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, have shaken the tech industry since June and imperiled multibillion-dollar businesses that rely, at least in part, on user trust. Most troubling, industry officials say, was a Post report in October detailing how the NSA and its British counterpart were taking massive flows of information directly from the private communications links among data centers operated by Google and Yahoo.
Backlash has run particularly strong in Europe and in Brazil, where government officials have reacted with fury to news of the NSA tactics.
U.S. intelligence officials have staunchly defended their surveillance practices. In a statement last month, the NSA said that efforts are focused on gathering intelligence against legitimate foreign targets, “not on collecting and exploiting a class of communications or services that would sweep up communications that are not of bona fide foreign intelligence interest to the U.S. government.”