Mozilla and 41 privacy groups getting their war on over NSA surveillance flap

The group has launched a website and a petition, and has sent letters to Congress calling for an investigation of the surveillance policies

A large gang of privacy organizations lead by Firefox browser developer Mozilla has launched, a new advocacy group (and website) calling for greater privacy protections in the way the government conducts its electronic surveillance programs.

The formation of the group comes in response to the stunning revelations of NSA spying practices last week in two stories, one by The Washington Post and the other by the Guardian in the UK.

The group wants a special Congressional committee to be created to fully examine how the National Security Agency (NSA) collects electronic communications data from phone companies and Internet companies. "As it stands, we simply don't know the scope of the NSA's surveillance programs," the group said in a statement.

The group hopes a Congressional inquiry might lead to reforms to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and FISA," organizer Sina Khanifar wrote in a note to TechHive. "We hope that Congress will make it clear that blanket surveillance is prohibited by law, and that violations will be reviewed before a public court."

"We have an opportunity right now to strike back, to opend a conversation about what kinds of surveillance programs are acceptable to us as a society," EFF's Rainey Reitman said during a conference call with media today. "It would be incredibly unfortunate if we used a narrow legal fix here, instead of taking the opportunity to overhaul the laws that allow this kind of surveillance."

The group said that it does not have a formal lobbying program in place, but will rely on Internet users to rally grassroots support to pressure lawmakers. As part of that effort, Mozilla is linking to directly from the "Start" page of its Firefox browsers, meaning that every time a user opens up a Firefox browser window, he or she sees a message about the campaign.

Google requests transparency

Mozilla isn't the only tech company asking for more transparency in government surveillance practices. Google sent a letter to the Attorney General and the FBI asking permission to publish information about the FISA requests it has received. Google wants to make public both the number of the FISA requests it receives each year, and the scope of the requests.

However, the reasons for Google's request, as spelled out by chief legal officer David Drummond in a blog post today, make it sound as if Google is more interested in clearing its name in the PRISM scandal than promoting transparency as an end in itself.

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue," Drummond wrote. "However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

Microsoft added its voice, as well. "Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues," the company said in a statement, according to Reuters.

ACLU files suit

Separately, the ACLU swung into action on the issue today, announcing a lawsuit that it's filing against the NSC on behalf of Verizon. The suite is a "constitutional challenge to a surveillance program under which the National Security Agency vacuums up information about every phone call placed within, from, or to the United States," the ACLU said in a statement. The lawsuit argues that the program violates the First Amendment rights of free speech and association as well as the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment.

As it turns out, ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Services, so it naturally didn't much like the idea of the NSA having carte blanche access to its calls over the Verizon network. So the ACLU decided to to do what the ACLU does best--file suit.

Senate bill announced

While the privacy activists are just now mobilizing, the repercussions of the NSC surveillance revelations of last week are already showing up in the Congress. Today eight senators introduced a bill that would put an end to the "secret law" governing controversial government surveillance programs. The bill would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," bill sponsor Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) said in a statement today.

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