Technology companies including Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Google Inc. (GOOG) called on the U.S. to lead government reform of surveillance practices after revelations the National Security Agency gained access to private networks to conduct spying.
“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide,” the companies wrote in a statement. “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual.”
Documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the agency gained access to the customer accounts of technology companies, circumvented encryption, and tapped fiber-optic cables as part of its surveillance programs, according to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Guardian newspapers. The companies have responded by boosting encryption and pushing back on government requests for information.
“We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight,” the companies said in the statement, which was addressed to President Barack Obama and members of Congress.
By uniting, the companies, which often compete on a daily basis, show they’re serious about having an impact, said Leslie Harris, president of Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington D.C. The companies need to now show they’re willing to go into “campaign” mode, including spending on public messaging and taking the time to influence politicians.
“When companies are willing to speak in their own voice, that’s potentially a game changer,” she said. “That is a statement that they’re willing to put their prestige, their political influence and, hopefully, their resources behind a reform effort.”
Obama plans to propose curbs on the NSA to guard against unwarranted snooping, he said in an interview broadcast on MSNBC last week.
The joint statement from the eight companies comes as the NSA issue has raised concerns worldwide about how user data is being managed, with potential implications for U.S. technology companies’ international business. Brazil and Germany have pushed for a United Nations inquiry scrutinizing the NSA for possible violations of privacy rights in surveillance activities at home and abroad.
European Union legislators set to negotiate a trade agreement with the U.S. also want to include strict rules for American companies handling EU citizens’ data and fine them heavily for violations.
Amid the backlash, some of the technology companies have separately announced steps to expand use of encryption to protect customer information.
Microsoft last week said it shares concerns of its customers about government surveillance of the Internet.
“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president, legal and corporate affairs, at Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, said in a statement. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”
Microsoft said it will step up its legal efforts to protect private data and make its software code more transparent so customers can reassure themselves Microsoft’s products don’t contain “back doors” allowing access to their information.
Yahoo, Twitter and Google have also said they’ll beef up security. Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo said in November it will encrypt all information that flows between its data centers and will also let users encrypt data to and from the company by the end of the first quarter of 2014.
“Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users,” Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer of Yahoo, said in the joint statement. “And it is time for the U.S. government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world.”