Top tech coalition demands limits on government surveillance

Filed Under: Apple, Featured, Google, Microsoft, Organisations, Privacy

Conference room image courtesy of ShutterstockEight of the world's leading technology companies have come together to call for a change in the way the US government conducts surveillance.

The companies - AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo - have created an alliance known as Reform Government Surveillance.

The group is asking the world's governments to reassess intelligence gathering practices following the leaking of various documents by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

These leaks have, according to Microsoft's Brad Smith, lessened people's trust in technology. Smith said, "People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

The Reform Government Surveillance group has written to President Obama and Congress, arguing that current surveillance practices undermine individual freedoms, as protected by the US Constitution.

An open letter from the group recognised the need for domestic security measures but questioned the extent to which governments go in their collection of information:

Dear Mr. President and Members of Congress,
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 tech coalition also requested changes be made to future surveillance, saying that:

We urge the US to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.

The group's campaign is not limited to simply writing a letter though. It has also defined five reform principals that it believes governments need to adopt:

  1. Limiting governments' authority to collect users' information - Sensible limitations should be employed in order to protect user privacy. Governments should cease bulk data collection and limit information-gathering to specific cases and in compliance with the law.
  2. Oversight and accountability - Intelligence agencies should be subjected to more checks and balances to ensure compliance with the law. Additionally, reviewing courts should be independent and important decisions should be made public in order to provide accountability.
  3. Transparency about government demands - Governments should be far more forthcoming in disclosing the surveillance techniques they employ so that meaningful debates can take place in respect of the scope and power of such programs. Companies should disclose information about government requests to their users.
  4. Respecting the free flow of information - Governments should allow the free flow of information between countries without any form of hindrance or requirements for service providers to maintain infrastructure within a particular country's borders.
  5. Avoiding conflicts among governments - There should be a better framework to facilitate data requests between different nations and other legal jurisdictions. To this end, the coalition suggests that some sort of treaty could be designed that would govern such requests in a robust and transparent way.

In many ways I applaud this move from some of the world’s largest technology companies but I can't help but wonder if there is a touch of hypocrisy about this campaign?

When I read a quote from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, in which he said ...

Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information

... I wondered if perhaps many of the principles put forth by the Reform Government Surveillance group could also be applied to at least some of the companies present in this alliance. After all, the likes of Facebook and Google are not adverse to collecting copious amounts of data about our lives.

For now, I'm not sure which concerns me the most - being spied upon in the name of national security or being spied upon in the name of consumerism.

Image of conference room courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to Top tech coalition demands limits on government surveillance

  1. Ralph Fendlemyer · 280 days ago

    Consumerism does not treat you like a potential criminal or terrorist or put you on a no-fly list. They just want your money.... That's the difference.....

  2. Andrew · 279 days ago

    It truly is time to take stock and look at this situation in a level headed manor as the majority of this data collected has no value to anyone but the individuals that own it. The spying organisations should realise that people are people, we all make mistakes, so collecting information at this level is useless as the hours spent in man power sifting through is a high cost. The concentration should be targeted at what is known and what can be proved rather than everyone is guilty. The amount of storage space being used must be huge and tax payers are paying for it and yet they are the suspects where is the logic. People do have a right to conduct their business without the interference of the intelligence agencies. Please all of you stop and take a look and stop persecuting your own people. Privacy Laws are there for a reason.

  3. Adam · 279 days ago

    Couldn't agree more with your last two paragraphs.

    It's also convenient to be seen protesting the invasion of privacy, then behind the scenes feeding the same information to the government anyway.

  4. wrap2tyt · 279 days ago

    I would challenge AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo to limit the amount of data they're sucking in to profit from... this is a classic case of "Pot calling Kettle black".

  5. Tim · 278 days ago

    I was listening to Mark Zuckerberg talk about that the government has gone too far with their data collection and in the next sentence he stated, "The governments job is to keep us safe". You would think that Mark would know that the Internet is being used as the main communications tool for terrorists the world over. Putting an intelligence picture together takes tons of raw data (just ask anyone that has ever worked in the industry) to get even small threads that can be connected. If you expect your government to keep you safe in the world today you can't hamstring them in the data collection mode. You have to focus on the "analysis and use" side of the equation!

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.