July 18 Dozens of companies, non-profits and
trade organizations including Apple Inc, Google Inc
and Facebook Inc sent a letter Thursday pushing
the Obama administration and Congress for more disclosures on
the government's national security-related requests for user
Together with LinkedIn Corp, Yahoo! Inc,
Microsoft Corp, Twitter and many others, the companies
asked for more transparency of secret data gathering in the
letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Attorney General
Eric Holder, National Intelligence Director James Clapper,
National Security Agency (NSA) Director General Keith Alexander
and national security leaders in Congress.
Tech companies have been scrambling to assert their
independence after documents leaked last month by former U.S.
security contractor Edward Snowden suggested they had given the
government direct access to their computers as part of the NSA's
secret surveillance program called Prism.
Such data collection activities are overseen by the
secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and largely
done under the laws of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act (FISA) and the USA PATRIOT Act.
The classified nature of the data gathering has barred the
participating companies from disclosing even their involvement,
let alone the content of the requests.
The leaks have renewed a public debate over the balance
between national security and privacy, and have put tech
companies in an awkward position, especially because many have
been assailed for their own commercial use of customer data.
Some companies, including Facebook and Apple, in June struck
an agreement with the government to release some information
about the number of surveillance requests they receive. But they
were limited to disclosing aggregate government requests for
data without showing the split between surveillance and criminal
requests, and only for a six-month period.
In Thursday's letter, they asked to be allowed to regularly
report statistics on the number and scope of user data requests
done under specific national security authorities and the number
of individuals, accounts or devices affected by those requests.
"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, and to
international users of U.S.-based service providers who are
concerned about the privacy and security of their
communications," the letter said.
The letter also asked Congress to pass legislation that
would require the federal government to make transparency
reports and let companies disclose user data requests without
having to first ask the FISA Court for permission.
Co-signers included investors such as Boston Common Asset
management and Union Square Ventures, as well as scores of
associations including Human Rights Watch, Electronic Frontier
Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax
Reform and conservative FreedomWorks.
One of the lawmakers the letter was addressed to is Senate
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who has
introduced a bill that would expand reporting requirements for
the secret programs, add more court reviews and move up the
expiration of the authorization for some of the data collection
by 2-1/2 years.
"Americans deserve to know how much of their communications
data is being swept up by government surveillance, and the
government's use of these authorities must be subject to strong
oversight," Leahy said on Thursday.
He said the Judiciary Committee will hold another hearing on
the issue later this month.
The U.S. government is facing multiple court challenges over
its surveillance programs. Yahoo this week scored a victory
when the FISA Court sided with the Internet company and ordered
the Obama administration to declassify and publish a 2008 court
decision justifying the Prism program.
The government is expected to decide by August 26 which
parts of the 2008 opinion may be published, according to a
separate court filing by the Justice Department.
The White House and the Department of Justice did not
immediately comment on Thursday's letter.