Why tech giants are now uniting against US surveillance

Technology firms like Google and Facebook on Monday called on the US government to curtail its online surveillance. If users no longer trust them, such companies could face big problems.

Connie Zhou/Google/AP/File
Hundreds of fans funnel hot air from the computer servers into a cooling unit to be recirculated at a Google data center in Mayes County, Okla. Eight major technology companies, including Google, have joined forces to call for tighter controls on government surveillance.

The corporate giants of technology are urging the US government to change its surveillance ways – and leading the way are the primary architects of the social networks now generating a distinctly modern mingling of commerce, selfies, and status updates.

On Monday, a coalition of eight companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, sent an open letter to President Obama and members of Congress, urging them to comply with “established global norms of free expression and privacy.” It all but demanded the government work to ensure that all law enforcement and intelligence efforts “are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight.”

The missive suggests that these companies, which were joined by Linkedin, Twitter, and Yahoo, have perceived government surveillance worldwide as a looming threat to the life-blood of their business. Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have threatened to confirm customers' worst fears about an industry that relies on monitoring and tracking the behavior of its customers – and convincing them that this kind of corporate surveillance is beneficial.

“That’s part of their dangerous dance now, since the near-term economic future for all those companies, every single one of them, rests on being able to track and exploit consumer data on the Internet,” says Aram Sinnreich, a digital privacy expert and professor at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick, N.J. “They’re not going to be able to do that if the idea of tracking has become so toxic – thanks to this pervasive government surveillance – that consumers may not be willing to abide it in a commercial context.”

This year’s Snowden revelations have illustrated the extent to which many of these companies have cooperated with government officials. In the NSA’s PRISM program, the government gains “front-door” access to company servers under a court-approved process.

But in another top-secret document from the Snowden leaks, even company executives were startled to learn that, with another program called MUSCULAR, the NSA has broken into communication arteries that link Yahoo and Google data centers around the globe. Whereas PRISM requested specific data, this program taps into the flow of information with a virtual secret spigot.

“These companies have all cooperated with the FBI in national security investigations for years,” says Frank Scafidi, a former 20-year veteran field agent with the FBI, now the director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Sacramento, Calif. “But to learn in recent times of the government’s silent vacuuming of signals and cell calls and text messages and e-mails – all without the knowledge of these companies or the individuals communicating through them – has raised sufficient ire to produce this reform coalition.”

Even before the latest revelations, criticism had poured in from Europe and South America, especially after it was revealed that the NSA had recorded cellphone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“It’s clear that pressure is increasing, especially internationally,” says Professor Sinnreich. “The secondary story here is that NSA surveillance is widely, and I think legitimately, perceived as an overreach of American power. And I think there’s a real risk to these companies, since the fastest growing markets for these companies is overseas – the growing online middle class consumer base in countries like China and India.”

“If those consumers see these companies as instruments of American foreign power, they’re going to take a really significant hit in those markets,” he adds.

So it is in the best interests of these tech behemoths to get ahead of their critics, say other industry watchers. Indeed, the Snowden revelations have brought together companies that otherwise relentlessly engage in a struggle-to-corporate-death competition.

“These companies want to provide a unified front and make it appear as though they are standing up for the privacy rights of American citizens,” e-mails Ann Bartow, professor of law at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. “Even though they themselves compromise individual privacy quite dramatically.”

“They want to try to outmaneuver or prevent any individual company from using privacy for competitive advantage,” Professor Bartow continues. “For example, a social networking platform that actually respected privacy more than Facebook (not a very high bar) would be very appealing to many people. This group of companies is trying to set and enforce an ‘industry standard’ for privacy, and one that they prefer and control.”

In an era when “privacy” is a relative term and user data remain central to revenue, tech companies are trying to build on the idea of “trust.”

“Protecting the privacy of our users is incredibly important to Yahoo,” said Marissa Mayers, CEO of Yahoo, in a statement released with the open letter. “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.”

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