Household names including Apple and Google have formally called for changes to U.S. surveillance practices and policy, arguing that current operations undermine the freedom of people.
Eight companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and LinkedIn have formed an alliance called the Reform Government Surveillance group. Although usually fierce competitors, the group have come together in agreement over the U.S. government's spying programs -- brought to light by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden -- and have formally requested "wide-scale changes" to the regime.
Snowden's revelations have included alleged wiretapping, the storage of phone call records illegally, fibre-optic cable infiltration used to monitor communication on an international scale, and the use of malware to monitor computer networks by the U.S. agency.
According to the latest document leak, the NSA is gathering close to 5 billion records a day on cellular devices worldwide. The Washington Post says large amounts of domestic data is "incidentally" recorded, which allows the agency to track millions of people worldwide based on how and where mobile devices are used.
On the alliance's website, an open letter to President Obama and Congress signed by the firms acknowledges that governments have "a duty to protect their citizens," but argues that Snowden's information leaks over the practices of the NSA and U.S. government in wholesale spying have highlighted "the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the revelations show a "real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information." Brad Smith, Executive Vice President of Legal & Corporate Affairs at Microsoft said that "surveillance should address specific, suspicious targets under defined legal process rather than bulk collection of Internet communications."
Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, said "recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world." Google CEO and chairman Larry Page commented that user data security was "critical" for firms, but this has been "undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world."
"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," the letter states. "This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change."
The U.S. President agrees to an extent. During a recent appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, Obama said that he plans to "propose some self-restraint on the NSA," and push for "some reforms that that can give people more confidence." At the interview, Obama said:
"All of us spend more and more of our lives in cyberspace. We've got to be in there in some way to protect the American people, even as we're making sure the government doesn't abuse it. The Snowden exposures have identified some areas of legitimate concern, but some of it has also been highly sensationalized.
The people at the NSA generally are looking out for the safety of the American people. They are not interested in reading your emails or text messages, and that's not something that's done."
The company alliance states that they are all taking steps to keep user data secure, including the deployment of encryption technology to scupper "unauthorized surveillance on our networks," and plan to push back government requests to ensure they are both legal and reasonable.
It is this statement that is double-edged. Public outrage over Snowden's revelations have wounded consumer trust in technology companies whose names become involved, and if the target market has doubts, then this can end up damaging both a firm's reputation and profit lines. While improving encryption and security is all to the good, it is worth keeping in mind that data collection is within the realms of both government surveillance and corporations -- in short, both sides are battling over which has control and dominance over the data we generate while using communications-based services.
By formally protesting against governmental spying and data collection, the firms have the opportunity to boost their own reputations and potentially rebuild the trust of consumers -- as well as join the fight to retain authority over customer data which is collected for the company's benefit. Just as Microsoft's Smith wrote in a blog post -- "people won't use technology they don't trust."