Google, Microsoft, others join in calling on NSA limits

Congressional action to rein in NSA activity formally requested by leading tech companies


Eight of the largest U.S. Internet companies are formally urging the White House and Congress to rein in surveillance by the National Security Agency, a move at least one privacy advocate says will add pressure on Congress to further restrict NSA activity.

[NSA revelations bolstering demands for congressional action]

AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo sent an open letter calling on the U.S. to lead the world toward government restraint on data collection. The companies published the letter Monday online and in full-page ads in a number of U.S. newspapers.

"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 letter said.

The Internet companies have individually asked Congress and the President Barack Obama administration to curb NSA activity. Documents released by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed massive data collection from telecommunication and Internet companies, as part of the NSA's anti-terrorism efforts. NSA-gathered data has included email traffic, instant messages and contact lists.

The revelations have brought calls for reform of NSA surveillance from members of Congress and have angered foreign governments, including allies, such as Germany and France. U.S. tech companies have said NSA activities have had an impact on customer trust in other countries.

The letter marks a concerted effort by the rivals for change. NSA surveillance of foreign communications by U.S. citizens is legal, but critics argue that NSA practices have crossed the line into domestic spying.

The Internet companies are seeking a U.S.-led effort at worldwide reform in government surveillance.

"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," Larry Page, chief executive of Google, said in a statement.

"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 US government to lead the way."

Privacy advocates were pleased that the companies were calling not just for more transparency, but also for restrictions on data collection.

[NSA spreading malware to further goals for more power]

"That's huge," Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. "It goes way beyond transparency."

The letter also acknowledges that concerns over NSA spying have spread to the companies' customers. "To the extent that they're recognizing that their users care about this is definitely a good thing," Fakhoury said.

The pressure the companies are placing on politicians comes as Congress is considering a number of bills aimed at reforming laws governing NSA spying. Privacy advocates particularly support a bill introduced by Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The proposed legislation would add more court reviews of NSA activities, require additional reporting by the agency and shorten the expiration time for authorization of some data collection.

"The companies have a big voice and Congress will listen to that voice," Fakhoury said.

How many lawmakers listen in Congress will determine whether Leahy's proposals get approved. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has introduced a competing bill more focused on transparency than restricting data gathering.

Civil rights advocates have said Feinstein's proposal fails to go far enough to curtail the NSA.

"If Feinstein's legislation were to pass, it would show the world that Congress no longer respects its citizens' fundamental privacy rights," Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said in a op-ed piece that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

The companies' letter is consistent with many of the Internet giant's efforts to appease customer concerns through better data encryption. For example, Microsoft reported last week that it would expand encryption across its services and let customers review more source code for back doors that could be exploited by the NSA.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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