Tech heavyweights Facebook, Google, Apple support bill limiting NSA spying

Tech heavyweights Facebook, Google, Apple support bill limiting NSA spying
Technology companies are pressing the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act,a bill that would place limits on domestic surveillance operations run by the National Security Agency. They include some of the biggest names in the industry.

Companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Twitter are pressing the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act before the 2013 congressional session ends. The Senate is set to debate the bill on Tuesday. It needs 60 votes to clear a filibuster and move forward for an up-or-down vote.

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In a letter sent from CEOs of the leading technology companies to the Senate, the executives asked lawmakers to demonstrate leadership and restore the confidence of internet users while keeping citizens safe.

“It’s been a year since the first headlines alleging the extent of government surveillance on the Internet...We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But the balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish, and it must change,” said the letter’s authors.

It is in the best interest of the United States to resolve these issues. Confidence in the Internet, both in the U.S. and internationally, has been badly damaged over the last year. It is time for action. As the Senate takes up this important legislation, we urge you to ensure that US surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent, and subject to independent oversight.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would create more transparency and accountability when the government seeks court approval for surveillance activities.

Specifically, it would place metadata records – information such as the time a call was made and the duration of the call, but not the actual content of the call itself – in the possession of telephone companies instead of the NSA. If intelligence agencies wanted to gain access to the data, they would have to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).

The bill would also allow public advocates to participate in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) proceedings. Additionally, the government would be required to disclose FISA opinions and statistics about the extent of domestic spying activities, although it could decline to publish them if it believed they would damage national security.

The bill is also receiving support from the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents hundreds of technology companies globally. Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the group, also wrote to the Senate:

American technology companies have been hurt by reaction to the revelation of the US government’s bulk data collection,” he wrote, according to the Guardian. “Many companies have lost business, or face laws designed to restrict data flows, due to foreign governments’ fear that the US government can reach company-managed data at will.”

Several companies, including members of CEA, have already lost contracts with foreign governments worth millions of dollars. Further, several governments may now limit the free flow of data across borders, damaging the utility and functionality of the internet.

Although the House of Representatives passed the original draft of the Freedom Act in May, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-.Vt.) further strengthened the bill at the request of civil liberties advocates. Key reformers like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have not yet thrown their support behind the bill, hoping for stronger measures against the “backdoor” collection of Americans’ data – something done indirectly when the primary target is a foreigner.

Over the past year, the companies responsible for 95 percent of smartphones in the United States have been embracing encryption for the sake of their customers’ privacy. Apple and Google now provide encryption on operating systems for their devices.
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In a statement accompanying the release of its iOS 8 operating system in mid-September, Apple announced that “personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode,” adding, “Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data.”

So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8,” the company said.

READ MORE:No peeking!: New Android device encryption tells police to keep out

Later on September 18, Google announced it would be adopting new security-minded practices as well, including enabling encryption by default on its next fleet of software.

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However, there has been some criticism of the encryption. The announcement raised the ire of FBI Director James Comey, who complained in late September, saying it would hinder law enforcement operations.

"There will come a day – well it comes every day in this business – when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper's or a terrorist or a criminal's device,” he said. “I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes.”

I'd hate to have people look at me and say, 'Well how come you can't save this kid,' 'how come you can't do this thing.’”