Six Tech Giants Appeal for More Transparency Regarding NSA Requests

NSA Headquarters, Ft. Meade, Maryland
NSA Headquarters, Ft. Meade, Maryland

Citing “erroneous reports” that they permit intelligence agencies direct access to their servers or that they participate in a wholesale Internet records collection program, the tech giants first refuted claims that they are aiding domestic dragnet spying. 

“Our companies have consistently made clear that we only respond to legal demands for customer and user information that are targeted and specific,” they said in the letter, addressed to Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Michael S. Lee (R-Utah), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Frank James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.). They urged that they be given the freedom to be transparent about the number and nature of requests so that the public can better understand the facts about the government’s authority to compel technology companies to disclose user data and how technology companies respond to the targeted legal demands they receive.

They also advocated an overhauling of existing policies. “Transparency is a critical first step to an informed public debate, but it is clear that more needs to be done.”

“Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs,” Apple et al urged. “We also continue to encourage the Administration to…allow us to release more information about the number and types of requests that we receive, so that the public debate on these issues can be informed by facts about how these programs operate.”

To that end, the companies said that they championed the legislation introduced last week that is meant to block the NSA and other intelligence groups from the unwarranted bulk collection of phone and internet records. Leahy and Sensenbrenner introduced the USA Freedom Act, which would end domestic spying under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and ensure that other authorities cannot be used to justify similar collection. The bill also provides more safeguards for warrantless surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act, which has a loophole that the NSA has used to collect the content of domestic online communications.

In a separate move that doesn’t go quite as far as the Freedom Act, the Senate Intelligence Committee last week also approved the introduction of the FISA Improvements Act by a vote of 11 to 4. That bipartisan legislation prohibits any review of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 unless there is a “reasonable articulable suspicion” of association with international terrorism, and establishes criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for intentional unauthorized access to data acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It would require an annual public report of the total number of queries of NSA's telephone metadata database and the number of times the program leads to an FBI investigation or probable cause order; and limit the number of people that are authorized to request records in the first place.

It also imposes a five-year limit on the retention of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 and requires the Attorney General approval to query records that are older than three years.

“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place.”

The tech companies said they were willing to be part of the process to get these pieces of legislation adopted into law. “We look forward to working with you, the co-sponsors of your bills, and other members on legislation that takes into account the need of governments to keep individuals around the world safe as well as the legitimate privacy interests of our users around the world,” the companies said.

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