July 18 (Bloomberg) -- A U.S. board that will tell Congress whether surveillance programs violate civil liberties wants to hear from companies including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. on what data and access to servers they’ve given the government.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, appointed by President Barack Obama, is reviewing the scope of National Security Agency spy programs and will recommend whether new controls are needed to curb the government’s surveillance authority.
Meetings with Internet and telecommunications companies will “shed light” on how they respond to orders to turn over data and whether the NSA has overreached, David Medine, the board’s chairman, said in a phone interview July 16.
“It’s valuable to hear company perspectives on how the programs operate,” Medine said. “We want to hear both sides of it. We want to hear the government side but we also want to hear the private-sector side.”
Medine said he decided to request meetings with companies and trade associations that weren’t asked to participate in the board’s first public meeting after Bloomberg News inquired about the panel’s work.
The board was dormant for six years and came to life when Medine was sworn in May 29, eight days before publication of the first news stories based on documents leaked by contractor Edward Snowden about secret NSA programs.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, Facebook Inc., based in Menlo Park, California, and other companies should be allowed to clarify what they’ve given the NSA under court order, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast yesterday.
A coalition of companies, privacy advocates and trade groups sent a letter today to Obama and congressional leaders asking permission for Internet and telephone companies to publish the number and types of U.S. data requests they receive.
The 63 organizations that signed included Google, Facebook and Apple Inc.; non-profit privacy watchdogs the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and trade groups the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Internet Association.
The privacy board was created by federal law to ensure U.S. spy programs don’t infringe citizen privacy. It will provide a report to Congress that may include recommendations to alter surveillance programs.
The board on July 2 met with executives from Apple, based in Cupertino, California, for about an hour, Medine said. Apple, which requested the meeting, was one of the companies cited in reports by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers as participating in the NSA program, known as Prism.
“We requested a meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to strongly advocate for greater transparency about the national security-related requests we receive from the government,” Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said in an e-mail. “Apple has always placed a priority on protecting our customers’ personal data.”
The meeting helped the board get “a better sense of how the program operates,” Medine said. He declined to further comment or say which other companies he’s contacted.
Obama, facing criticism from privacy advocates and some lawmakers that NSA programs violate citizen rights, has described the board as a counterweight to spy programs.
Apple, Google and Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, have asked the Justice Department for permission to clarify what they do and don’t disclose to the NSA.
Hearing from the companies, even if it has to be in private, would help the board understand the breadth of the surveillance operations, rather than relying on the Obama administration’s description, Ashkan Soltani, an independent technology researcher who testified before the panel this month, said in an e-mail.
“It’s not clear how the oversight board can determine whether the government complied with the relevant legal authorities if they do not consult with the companies that were required to turn over user data,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington, in an e-mail.
Microsoft doesn’t provide direct access to e-mails, instant messages or Skype calls and refuses to grant agencies the ability to break its encryption, Brad Smith, general counsel for the company, wrote in a blog July 16.
The privacy panel took testimony July 9 from national security watchdogs, former government officials and a former judge on the secret court that sanctioned the spying, and heard recommendations to restrain the NSA.
No businesses or trade groups were asked to appear. Several Internet companies have said they comply with a federal court’s orders to provide the NSA access to e-mails, videos and photos under one of the classified programs exposed by Snowden.
Snowden also revealed a secret court order compelling Verizon Communications Inc. to give the NSA calling records of millions of Americans. It isn’t known whether other phone companies were under similar orders.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, said the board needs some time to get running. “There is a lot of information board members need to learn before they can have a really useful conversation with the companies,” Martin said in a phone interview.
Since the NSA programs were exposed, Facebook Inc., based in Menlo Park, California, and Yahoo! Inc., based in Sunnyvale, California, also have said they received warrants from the government compelling them to turn over data about their users. Google has published reports on government requests.
Some companies have denied giving authorities direct access to their servers, although thousands of businesses are swapping intelligence with security agencies.
“We are eager to meet” with the privacy board, Dominic Carr, a Microsoft spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. The company has petitioned the secret court and the U.S. Attorney General, and wants to work with the panel “to advocate for much greater transparency, which we believe is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and essential for an open and public discussion,” he said.
Spokeswomen Samantha Smith of Google and Sarah Feinberg of Facebook declined to comment. Verizon’s Edward McFadden didn’t respond to requests for comment. Yahoo hasn’t met with the board, spokeswoman Suzanne Philion said in an e-mail.
The board was initially suggested by the 9/11 Commission report, in response to laws passed to help authorities fight domestic terrorism. Sharon Bradford Franklin, a senior lawyer at the Constitution Project, a Washington-based watchdog group, has been hired as the board’s executive director, the group said yesterday.
Although the board is an independent agency, it doesn’t have subpoena power. It can ask the U.S. Attorney General to subpoena companies and other non-governmental entities.
“Right now, we’re looking for voluntary efforts to come in,” Medine said.
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