Tech Firms Planning Transparency Push

Now things might get real: a “broad alliance” of 63 technology companies and civil liberties organizations plan on demanding more transparency about U.S. government surveillance programs, according to a new report in AllThingsD.

Those companies and organizations will reportedly ask the government to allow them to report more accurate information about user-data requests. At the moment, federal agencies forbid Google, Microsoft, and other tech vendors from reporting more than a broad numerical range; for example, Google might announce as part of its Transparency Report that it received between 0-999 National Security Letters (issued by agencies as part of national security investigations) in 2009.

“We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national security–related authorities,” reads a portion of a letter that will be reportedly published July 19 and signed by all those tech companies, and which was apparently obtained by AllThingsD. “This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use.”

News of the public letter comes a day after Microsoft asked the U.S. Attorney General to permit the release of more information related to government requests for user data.

“We believe the U.S. Constitution guarantees our freedom to share more information with the public, yet the Government is stopping us,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, wrote in a July 16 corporate blog posting. “For example, Government lawyers have yet to respond to the petition we filed in court on June 19, seeking permission to publish the volume of national security requests we have received. We hope the Attorney General can step in to change this situation.”

In June, Google made a similar request of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But the just-reported alliance and letter—if the latter appears—represents the beginning of what could be a much larger coalition.

Also in June, of course, The Guardian and The Washington Post reported on top-secret documents provided by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor and self-described “whistleblower,” which described a top-secret NSA program called PRISM that allegedly siphons personal information from the databases of the world’s largest tech companies. Ever since, those companies (which have all denied participation in PRISM) have been anxious to show the world that they only give the government as little user data as possible. This new push for more “transparency” plays to that strategy, and the stakes couldn’t be higher—if consumers and businesses lose faith in those tech companies’ ability to preserve privacy, their very existence could be at risk.


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