Opinion
In this undated file photo made available by Google, hundreds of fans funnel hot air from the computer servers into a cooling unit to be recirculated at a Google data center in Mayes County, Okla. The green lights are the server status LEDs reflecting from the front of the servers. Eight major technology companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, have joined forces to call for tighter controls on government surveillance, issuing an open letter Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 to President Barack Obama arguing for reforms in the way the U.S. snoops on people. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou, File)
             In this undated file photo made available by Google, hundreds of fans funnel hot air from the computer servers into a cooling unit to be recirculated at a Google data center in Mayes County, Okla. The green lights are the server status LEDs reflecting from the front of the servers. Eight major technology companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, have joined forces to call for tighter controls on government surveillance, issuing an open letter Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 to President Barack Obama arguing for reforms in the way the U.S. snoops on people. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou, File)   

Tech companies revolt as government spying threatens to wreak havok on U.S. business interests

Photo of Leah Libresco
Leah Libresco
Associate Policy Analyst, R Street

When tech companies AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo wanted to voice their concerns about government surveillance, they took to a very traditional medium: full page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, Roll Call, Politico, and the Hill.

Their call to action comes at the same time as a petition to the White House to overhaul ECPA (the law that defines your more than six-months old email as “abandoned” and thus ok for warrantless spying), with over 66,000 signatures in support, is nearing its final hours.

These big tech companies have banded together to demand the government rein in snooping because they see that fading trust in U.S. technology products is already starting to wreak economic mayhem on some of America’s biggest firms.

They realize it’s time to stop runaway government spying, before its chilling effect on online business and communication threatens to take us back to the 20th century.

The companies have five key principles that government intelligence gathering ought to follow. First, any data gathering should be focused, extending an existing investigation, not fishing for a new one. Think wiretaps on a specific suspect with probable cause, not listening in on every phone call and doing a few keyword searches.

The second principle is also a request to bring e-investigations back into line with traditional policing. The allied companies call on the intelligence agencies to be subject to real adversarial oversight, not the rubber-stamping of the FISA courts.

In order to watch the watchdogs, the tech companies are calling for increased transparency, so it doesn’t take a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what kind of surveillance is being approved and how often.

The tech companies also want increased transparency so they can clear up their own complicity in government snooping. Google, Microsoft, and others were left in a nasty PR fix when they were not permitted to say what kind of data they were compelled to share with the NSA. They were unpleasantly surprised to learn that it wasn’t just their users who had been misled, as the Snowden leaks unfolded.

Not content with the data they requested, the NSA had been tapping into the fiber optic links between internal servers at Google and other companies, skimming off massive amounts of supposedly secure data. It’s not surprising, then, that Microsoft now considers the U.S. government an “advanced persistent threat” — a term previously reserved for foreign-sponsored hackers and cyberterrorists.

With government snoops poking their nose into data as it streams to and from the cloud, it’s no wonder the tech companies devoted one of their principles to “respecting the free flow of information.” Threatening the security of websites and data storage – whether by invading the privacy of users or by building in “back doors” that will eventually be discovered and exploited by other malefactors – will drive users away from the Internet.

Companies might consider going back to handcuffed briefcases and couriers, rather than letting trade secrets go through channels they know have been compromised at least once.