US tech giants ask lawmakers to reform NSA powers

Six major tech firms, including Google and Facebook, send letter to Congress asking for improved privacy protection

The National Security Agency has tapped directly into communications links used by Google and Yahoo to move huge amounts of email and other user information among overseas data centers, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

Six of the biggest U.S. technology firms are urging Congress to rein in the National Security Agency by providing more transparency about surveillance, and to improve privacy protection in general.

In a letter to a Senate committee, the tech giants applauded the recent introduction in Congress of the USA Freedom Act – a measure aimed at ending the bulk collection of phone records, and at improving privacy protection in the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"Recent disclosures regarding surveillance activity raise important concerns both in the United States and abroad," said the letter signed by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and AOL.

The companies said more transparency would "help to counter erroneous reports that we permit intelligence agencies 'direct access' to our companies' servers or that we are participants in a bulk Internet records collection program."

"Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs," the letter said.

Many in the tech community have expressed support for the USA Freedom Act in separate press releases. 

Mozilla called the legislation "an important step toward rebuilding user trust by adding limitations on government collection of data in the name of national security."

Ed Black, the chief executive officer of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, called the act "vital to reform and properly focus our current surveillance system.”

The big companies’ letter, dated Thursday and addressed to the Senate Judiciary Committee, came days after a news report said the NSA has tapped into key communications links from Yahoo and Google data centers around the world.

The Washington Post, citing documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with officials, said the program can collect data at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, including those of Americans.

The report said the data-collection program dubbed MUSCULAR, operated jointly with the NSA's U.K. counterpart GCHQ, enables the agencies to intercept data flows from the fiber-optic cables used by the U.S. Internet giants.

The NSA disputes key details of the report.

Google declined to comment in greater detail on the circumstances that prompted the companies’ letter, and the other signatory companies had not responded to interview requests at the time of publication.

On Tuesday Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., along with Representatives James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., and John Conyers, D-Mich., were joined by 12 bipartisan co-sponsors in introducing the USA Freedom Act. Sensenbrenner issued a statement saying the act is designed "to restore Americans' privacy rights by ending the government's dragnet collection of phone records, and requiring greater oversight, transparency, and accountability with respect to domestic surveillance authorities."

In a joint statement issued on Friday, Leahy and Sensebrenner reiterated their support for the legislation.

"The time is now for serious and meaningful reform," they said. "We are committed to working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get this done so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community and protect the privacy rights of our citizens.”

The legislation has been lauded by digital rights activists.

The Center for Democracy and Technology said this week the bill "would restore balance to intelligence surveillance authority by raising the standard for collection of information" under current law.

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

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