A number of leading tech companies, including Google, Mozilla, Facebook and Microsoft, have called on the US government to be more transparent when requesting user information on national security grounds.
The move follows reports in the The New York Times and The Guardian about a large-scale US National Security Agency surveillance program called PRISM, which reportedly allows large-scale surveillance of data from non-US citizens without a court order.
In an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Muller, Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, asks for the ability to publish data about the number of foreign intelligence requests it receives in its transparency reports.
“We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests. And last week, the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that service providers have received Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests,” Drummond states.
“Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the US government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.
“We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope.”
Mozilla went a step further, announcing the creation of a new lobby group called StopWatching.US to lobby for more transparent information about when governments request information from internet services, and how often.
“Last week, media reports emerged that the US government is requiring vast amounts of data from Internet and phone companies via top secret surveillance programs. The revelations, which confirm many of our worst fears, raise serious questions about individual privacy protections, checks on government power and court orders impacting some of the most popular Web services,” Mozilla global privacy and public policy spokesperson Alex Fowler said in a statement.
“At least in the US, companies are required to respect a court order to share our information with the government, whether they like it or not.
“Mozilla is launching StopWatching.Us — a campaign sponsored by a broad coalition of organisations from across the political and technical spectrum … [demanding] a full accounting of the extent to which our online data… [is] being monitored.”
In Australia, shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has issued a statement asking for further information about the programs and pointing out their potential commercial implications for Australian businesses.
“I think Australians have always understood data housed on US servers is subject to US laws such as the Patriot Act, but the Guardian story about the so-called PRISM programme suggests there is extensive surveillance and interception of foreign citizens’ data without a court order and indeed without the knowledge of the internet companies themselves,” Turnbull states
“These reports have potentially very significant commercial implications. There is a massive global trend to cloud services. The vast majority of the cloud service providers are US companies.”