Top tech coalition demands limits on government surveillance

Top tech coalition demands limits on government surveillance

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.