Today, eight leading internet companies have published in several major newspapers an open letter to President Barack Obama and to Members of Congress urging them to rein in the growth of the national security surveillance state. From the letter:
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.
For our part, we are focused on keeping users' data secure — deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.
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 companies behind the letter are AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. They set out a list of five principles at the ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com website including (1) no bulk collection of user data; (2) independent judicial review of intelligence agency demands, (3) transparent reports on what is being compelled; (4) no country firewalls against cross border data; and (5) a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) among countries to prevent conflicts.
Given the attitudes of authoritarian governments with respect to the internet privacy of their citizens, a comprehensive MLAT that also protects the constitutioinal rights of American citizens to be free from government surveillance might be difficult to negotiate. Or sadly, given the Edward Snowden revelations about the extent of National Security Agency spying, perhaps not that difficult after all.
Privacy violations mean something very different when companies collect collect vast amounts of customer data in order to target ads and services (as annoying as that may be to some users) than when governments collect the similar information in order to monitor the activities of their citizens. The government gaze is a lot more threatening to liberty than is the Google gaze.