Yesterday, eight of the world’s largest tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple, joined forces to launch the Reform Government Surveillance website and open letter.
The website specifically calls out the US government, and governments worldwide, for their over-reaching and highly opaque information gathering activities. The open letter asks the US government to lead worldwide efforts to “ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”
The coalition, which consists of AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo, asks for surveillance reform in five areas: Limiting governments’ authority to collect users’ information, oversight and accountability, transparency about government demands, respecting the free flow of information, and avoiding conflicts among governments. The Reform Government Surveillance website breaks down these five principles in further detail, if you’re interested.
In essence, though, the eight companies are basically asking for government surveillance to be governed by some kind of legal framework. At the moment, governmental surveillance operates in secret and without adequate oversight, allowing for gross overreach by the intelligence community. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if we citizens knew exactly what was going on, but if it wasn’t for whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, we’d all still be in the dark.
The open letter says that: “The balance… has tipped too far in favour 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.”
To hammer home its manifesto, the Reform Government Surveillance website also features quotes from seven corporate bigwigs – with an Apple exec being the mysterious omission. “People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” said Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith. “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world,” said Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
Something about the website doesn’t quite ring true, though. In the middle of the open letter, which is addressed to President Obama and Members of Congress, is a paragraph that’s clearly aimed at the companies’ customers. The letter says that all eight companies are “deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorised surveillance on our networks” – a line that is obviously meant to make us feel safer at night. But look at their use of “unauthorised” – this whole PRISM/Snowden/NSA/surveillance shebang is predicated on the fact that these big tech companies have willingly granting the US government access to their networks over the last few years. Once the whistle was blown, the companies came out in protest, to save face and attempt to regain consumer confidence – but the fact remains that they gave the US government access.
Deploying better and more encryption is certainly a good thing, but there’s still very little evidence that the NSA (pictured at the top of this article) and the rest of the intelligence community have actually cracked existing encryption standards. Again, the coalition’s use of the word “unauthorised” is very pertinent: It doesn’t really matter how good your encryption is, if your government forces you to hand over your encryption keys, passwords, or otherwise provide some kind of back door.
In that regard, this open letter very much feels like a PR manoeuvre to regain the trust of users. But maybe I’m just being too cynical…