Top US tech companies call for surveillance reform

Facebook, Twitter, Apple and more are urging the Obama administration and Congress to rein in government monitoring

Many web companies have strongly urged surveillance reforms in the aftermath of the leaks by former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden.

Eight major U.S. web companies made a joint call on Monday for tighter controls on how governments collect personal data, intensifying the furor over online surveillance.

In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress, the companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google, said recent revelations showed the balance had tipped too far in favor of the state in many countries and away from the individual.

In June, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed top secret government surveillance programs that tap into communications on cables linking technology companies' various data centers overseas.

After Snowden's disclosure, many of the big Internet companies warned that U.S. businesses may lose revenue abroad as wary customers switched to local alternatives.

This latest gesture comes as some of the very signatories to the letter are criticized over their data collection practices, which have led to increasing concerns over privacy. Google, for example, was fined in September for not complying with the French government's request for specific information on the data it collects from users. The search giant has also faced challenges to its Street View mapping project, acknowledging in March that it had violated people's privacy. Facebook, with its Graph search feature, has been criticized for the way it mines user data. Apple too has been scrutinized.

In November, many of the same companies also came together to write an open letter supporting the introduction in Congress of legislation aimed at ending the bulk collection of phone records, and at improving privacy protection in the operations of the court that authorizes intelligence actions.

Monday's letter echoed those sentiments.

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens," said the letter from the eight firms which also included AOL, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo.

"But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," the letter continued.

"The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor 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."

Several of the eight companies, which have a combined market capitalization of nearly $1.4 trillion, have responded by publicizing their decision to boost encryption and security on their sites.

The companies have detailed their "Reform Government Surveillance" campaign on a website, calling on the U.S. government to take the lead by limiting how much user information a government can collect.

"People won't use technology they don't trust," Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said on the website. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

The campaign also calls on governments to limit surveillance to specific, known users and to not to collect data in bulk. It also asks that companies have the right to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information.

"The security of users' data is critical, which is why we've invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information," Google Chief Executive Larry Page said on the website.

"This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It's time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way."

Obama last week said he intended to propose NSA reforms to reassure Americans that their privacy was not being violated by the agency.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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