Tech Giants Push for Limits on Government Surveillance

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Tech Giants Push for Limits on Government Surveillance
Sunshinepress/Getty ImagesNSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
By Chris Peters and Rohit T.K.

Eight major U.S. Web companies, including Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB), made a joint call Monday for tighter controls on how governments collect personal data, intensifying the furor over online surveillance.

In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress, the companies said recent revelations showed the balance had tipped too far in favor of the state in many countries and away from the individual.

In June, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed top secret government surveillance programs that tap into communications on cables linking technology companies' various data centers overseas.

After Snowden's disclosure, many of the big Internet companies warned that American businesses may lose revenue abroad as distrustful customers switched to local alternatives.

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens," said the letter from the eight firms which also included Microsoft (MSFT), Twitter (TWTR), LinkedIn (LNKD), Yahoo (YHOO) and AOL Inc. (AOL) (publisher of this website).

"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."

Several of the eight companies, which have a combined market capitalization of nearly $1.4 trillion, have responded by publicizing their decision to boost encryption and security on their sites.

Trust at Risk

The companies have detailed their Reform Government Surveillance campaign on a website, calling on the U.S. government to take the lead by limiting how much user information a government can collect.

"People won't use technology they don't trust," %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said on the website. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

The campaign also calls on governments to limit surveillance to specific, known users and not to collect data in bulk, and asks that companies have the right to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information.

"The security of users' data is critical, which is why we've invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information," Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page said on the website.

"This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It's time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way."

Obama last week said he intended to propose NSA reforms to reassure Americans that their privacy was not being violated by the agency.

British-based campaign group Big Brother Watch welcomed the move by the Internet groups and said surveillance laws in Britain, the U.S. and many other countries were no longer fit for the Internet age.

"This statement of principles, by some of the world's biggest companies, is a watershed moment and one that cannot go ignored in any country that regards itself as a democracy," it said.

Tech Giants Push for Limits on Government Surveillance
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the court order for telephone records was part of a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice, the Associated Press reported. "It’s called protecting America," Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said "the administration owes the American public an explanation of what authorities it thinks it has."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thought everyone "should just calm down." "Right now I think everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that's brand new," Reid said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in a statement: "This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was "glad" the NSA was collecting phone records. "I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States," Graham said in an interview on "Fox and Friends."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also claimed that reports of the NSA collecting phone records was "nothing particularly new." "Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this," Chambliss said. "And to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) found the NSA collecting phone records "troubling." "The fact that all of our calls are being gathered in that way -- ordinary citizens throughout America -- to me is troubling and there may be some explanation, but certainly we all as citizens are owed that, and we're going to be demanding that," Corker said.
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