Tech firms push Congress for transparency on NSA surveillance

Google, Facebook, Apple and other companies call on Congress to move quickly on NSA legislation

The U.S. Congress must act quickly on legislation that would make electronic data collection efforts by the U.S. National Security Agency more public, a group of tech firms, civil liberties groups and other organizations said Monday.

Internet and telecommunications companies that receive data collection and surveillance requests from the NSA should "have the right to publish basic statistics about the government demands for user data," the coalition said in a letter to the judiciary committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The letter endorsed two pieces of legislation, the Surveillance Transparency Act in the Senate and the Surveillance Order Reporting Act in the House, both of which would allow companies to publish information about the number of surveillance requests they receive from U.S. agencies. The Senate bill is sponsored by Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, with 11 co-sponsors, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and the House bill is sponsored by Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, with nine co-sponsors.

The Senate bill would require the U.S. government to issue annual public reports on surveillance requests made through the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Companies receiving surveillance requests could publish numbers every six months.

The House bill would allow Internet firms and telecoms to report the number of surveillance requests they receive every three months.

Companies signing Monday's letter included AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and Yahoo. Other organizations signing on were the American Civil Liberties Union, BSA, Consumer Action, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, Public Knowledge and TechFreedom. Some of the tech companies signing on to the letter have previously asked the government to allow them to report surveillance request numbers.

Lawmakers have introduced more than 20 bills focused on reforming government surveillance efforts in recent months, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about massive data collection and surveillance programs at the NSA. The Center for Democracy and Technology detailed 20 bills in a list released Sept. 12, and since then, four senators introduced another bill, called the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, which would outlaw the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. telephone records.

In addition, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week she plans to introduce a bill that would largely allow current NSA data collection practices to continue. The bill would add transparency to the process, Feinstein said, but it would also allow the NSA to continue collecting the communications of terrorism suspects who enter the U.S. for seven days while authorities seek court-ordered warrants.

The Senate Intelligence Committee may debate the Feinstein proposal, and potentially other bills, in closed session later this week.

In addition, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Wednesday hearing on oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, one piece of legislation that allows NSA surveillance.

One of the bills most likely to pass, said Greg Nojeim, CDT's senior counsel, is the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act, sponsored by Leahy. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy has the power to push the bill through committee.

That bill would end the bulk collection of telephone metadata now happening at the NSA. It requires that telephone data collection orders pertain to an agent of a foreign power or be relevant to the activities of an agent of a foreign power. The bill also requires inspector general audits of past data collection of U.S. records at the NSA.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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