NSA leaks: A year later, US tech leaders demand quicker surveillance reform

On the first anniversary of the NSA document leaks, the Reform Government Surveillance group said the balance between security and freedom has tipped too far against individual rights.

By , Staff writer

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    NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett answers questions during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the House-passed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reform bill while on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 5, 2014.
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US technology company leaders used the one-year anniversary of revelations that the National Security Agency routinely collected Americans’ phone “metadata” records to call Thursday for swifter action reining in government surveillance, including data flowing on the Internet.

“It’s been a year since the first headlines alleging the extent of government surveillance on the Internet,” said the open letter signed by nine members of Reform Government Surveillance, a consortium of tech leaders.

“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens,” the letter continues. “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.”

Recommended: How well do you know the world of spying? Take our CIA and NSA quiz.

The letter was signed by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google and Satya Nadella of Microsoft, as well as Tim Armstrong of AOL, Tim Cook of Apple, Drew Houston of Dropbox, Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn, Dick Costolo of Twitter, and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo.

In particular, the letter targeted legislation reforming surveillance policy that passed the House of Representatives last month and is now pending in the Senate. Privacy advocates have criticized the legislation, saying it was watered down at the last minute by the White House in consultation with House leadership.

“In the next few weeks, the Senate has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and pass a version of the USA Freedom Act that would help restore the confidence of Internet users here and around the world, while keeping citizens safe,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, the version that just passed the House of Representatives could permit bulk collection of Internet “metadata” (e.g. who you email and who emails you), something that the Administration and Congress said they intended to end.”

Moreover, while the House bill permits some transparency, the CEOs argued that their companies should be allowed to divulge more about what information the government has required them to provide about their users.

“It is critical to our customers that the bill allow companies to provide even greater detail about the number and type of government requests they receive for customer information,” the letter continued.

The tech chieftans are clearly worried that the NSA surveillance programs had damaged the ability of their companies to do business in other countries, cyber experts say. That’s especially true of European markets where regulators are expected to tighten restrictions on what data US companies can provide to law enforcement. At the same time, the firms’ European competitors are touting the fact they do not have to respond to US law enforcement.

“It is in the best interest of the United States to resolve these issues,” the letter continued. “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.”

Meanwhile, there were other signs of agitation on the one-year anniversary of the most significant document leak since Daniel Ellsberg handed The New York Times an internal US military history of the Vietnam War – since called the Pentagon Papers. Comparisons, pro-and-con, have been made between Dr. Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked the documents.

Just a week ago, Secretary of State John Kerry cited Pentagon Papers whistleblower Ellsberg in his denunciation of Mr. Snowden, calling on him to make his case in a US court as Ellsberg did. But Ellsberg, in a recent newspaper op-ed, has argued the opposite.

So does a billboard that has gone up at a bus shelter near the State Department in Washington. The billboard, paid for by a new organization called ExposeFacts.org, which lists Ellsberg as a member of its advisory board, features a picture of the Vietnam era whistleblower.

“Don't do what I did. Don’t wait until a new war has started,” says the Ellsberg billboard. “Don’t wait until thousands more have died, before you tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. You might save a war’s worth of lives.”

Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists that Snowden entrusted with, by some estimates, 1.7 million NSA documents, is meanwhile promising at least one more blockbuster story – the names of Americans spied on by the NSA.

“One of the big questions when it comes to domestic spying is, ‘Who have been the NSA’s specific targets?’ Are they political critics and dissidents and activists? Are they genuinely people we’d regard as terrorists,” Mr. Greenwald wondered in an interview with The Sunday Times of London last month.

“What are the metrics and calculations that go into choosing those targets and what is done with the surveillance that is conducted,” he mused. “Those are the kinds of questions that I want to still answer.”

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