Apple, Facebook, Civil Liberties Groups Demand More NSA Transparency

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A wide coalition of major tech companies — including giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft — along with advocy groups and trade associations — has sent a letter to President Obama demanding more transparency from the United States government about the scope of the NSA surveillance of Internet and telephone communications.

The letter, published on Thursday, asks the U.S. government to allow tech, phone and web-based companies to be more transparent and publish national security-related requests. These would include requests based on the laws that allow the NSA to collect a vast amount of phone and Internet records. Additionally, the letter demands the U.S. government publish a “transparency report” on its surveillance practices.

“Basic information about how the government uses its various law enforcement-related investigative authorities has been published for years without any apparent disruption to criminal investigations,” reads the letter (embedded below), which is also signed by major advocacy groups like the EFF, the ACLU and investment firms. “We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national security-related authorities,” it continues.

The letter specifically mentions Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendments Act. These are the two legal provisions underpinning the NSA’s telephone records collection program and PRISM, which were both revealed last month by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

According to the letter, tech companies want to be able to specify the number of requests they receive based on those statuses, the number of “individuals, accounts or devices” affected and the number of requests “sought communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information.”

Tech companies, in the wake of these revelations, have published some data related to these requests, but complain the government won’t let them be more transparent. Now, they think time has come to tell users about the scope of these requests. Digital rights advocates agree.

“We cannot have a meaningful debate about the scope of the government’s surveillance authority until we have an informed public,” said Kevin Bankston, senior counsel and director of free expression at the Center for Democracy and Technology in a statement. “People in the intelligence agencies often talk about how important it is to limit information to those with a ‘need to know’. Well, the American people need to know, and we need to know now.”

The letter goes as far as requesting the U.S. government release its own transparency report and publish information on “the total number of requests under specific authorities for specific types of data, and the number of individuals affected by each.”

The letter also demands congress to pass legislation requiring the U.S. government to issue this transparency report.

As a first step, the companies required permission to simply publish specific the number of national security requests receive. Until now, the government has only allowed to to publish aggregate numbers on all kinds of requests — both law-enforcement and national security-related. It has also allowed vague numbers; in March, Google revealed it had received between zero and 999 National Security Letters.

Significantly, the letter asks the government to release information about its telephone surveillance as well — even though no telephone company is listed in the signatures.

Companies like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, which have been ordered to hand over Americans’ phone records for years, have not been actively advocating for more transparency like their Internet counterparts, as reported by TIME.

“Just as the United States has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet,” the letter reads, “so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights.”

Letter to Obama from Major Tech Companies and Advocates Demanding More NSA Transparency

Image: Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

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