Security Advisor

Microsoft Joins Other Tech Firms in Public Snooping Denouncement

While the message sent by a coalition of online companies outlines changes needed to be made by the government, does it go far enough to address the issue?

Many tech firms are calling for those in Congress and the President to instigate sweeping reform to the U.S.'s online surveillance program.

Monday's public denouncement for programs like the National Security Agency's PRISM operation were placed in many major U.S. newspapers as a full-page ad and was posted online. In it, a coalition of companies that includes Microsoft, Google, Apple, AOL, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and LinkedIn affirmed their commitment to keeping customer data safe through encryption technology, and called for the U.S. government to reevaluate its surveillance operations.  

"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," read the open letter.

The letter then directs readers to five specific principles the coalition is calling for in the government reform:

  • Limit government authority to collect private user data and focus on specific users through lawful means.
  • The government needs to establish a clear legal framework for data collection with oversight by independent courts.
  • Both the government and Internet companies should disclose the nature and number of surveillance operations.
  • Allow for the lawful transfer of data across the globe and "governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country's borders or operate locally."
  • The U.S. and international governments need to come together to resolve surveillance concerns and conflicts.

Speaking on the open appeal for change, Microsoft said that users will become hesitant of sharing and using online- and cloud-based services if current surveillance policies don't change.
"People won't use technology they don't trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it," said ­­ Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft.

Today's condemnation and call for change has sparked criticisms from privacy advocates, including Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who said the vague outline proposed by the coalition of companies does very little to address the real problem.

"The companies are placing their users at risk by collecting and retaining so much information," said Rotenberg to the New York Times. "As long as this much personal data is collected and kept by these companies, they are always going to be the target of government collection efforts."

Another criticism was raised by The Guardian's Jeff Jarvis, who said that the most troubling factor of today's open letter is those companies who chose not to join the coalition. "I see no telecom company there -- Verizon, AT&T, Level 3, the companies allegedly in a position to hand over our communications data and enable governments to tap straight into internet traffic," said Jarvis. "Where is Amazon, another leader in the cloud whose founder, Jeff Bezos, now owns the Washington Post? Where are Cisco and other companies whose equipment is used to connect the net and by some governments to disconnect it? Where are the finance companies -- eBay, Visa, American Express -- that also know much about what we do?"

What's your take? Do you applaud the tech firms standing together to publicly denounce widespread government surveillance programs or do you see it as a token gesture to save public face? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author

Chris Paoli (@ChrisPaoli5) is the associate editor for Converge360.


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