Tech industry calls for 'oversight and accountability' of NSA surveillance

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other Internet companies had so far asked for permission to reveal data requests to the public

Internet companies in the U.S. are demanding that the surveillance practices of the U.S. should be reformed to enhance privacy protections and provide "appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms."

In a letter on Thursday to the chairman and members of the Committee on the Judiciary, a copy of which was provided by an industry source, Facebook, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said they welcomed a debate about how to protect both national security and privacy interests and applauded the sponsors of the USA Freedom Act, a legislation aimed to end bulk data collection by the National Security Agency, for their contribution to the discussion.

The companies had until now focused on asking the government for permission to reveal information on users' data requests by the NSA, which are covered under "gag orders" that prohibit recipients of orders from discussing them in public.

Google and Microsoft, for example, filed motions before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to be allowed to provide aggregate statistics on orders and directives that were received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and related regulations, which the government has so far refused.

Yahoo asked the court to allow it to make public documents from a 2008 dispute over a data request that would show that the company had resisted the order. The Internet companies are attempting to counter disclosures by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, that the government had real-time access to content on the servers of the Internet companies under a surveillance program called Prism, which these companies deny.

The stakes for the companies were raised this week after The Washington Post reported that NSA has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, giving it the ability to collect metadata and actual content from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans.

In the letter, the Internet companies wrote that transparency will help to counter "erroneous reports that we permit intelligence agencies 'direct access' to our companies' servers or that we are participants in a bulk Internet records collection program." The companies said that they have consistently stated that they only respond to legal demands for customer and user information that are targeted and specific.

"Allowing companies to be transparent about the number and nature of requests will help the public 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 we receive," according to the letter.

But transparency is only a first step for the Internet companies, who are now also asking for reform of government surveillance practices. "We urge the Administration to work with Congress in addressing these critical reforms that would provide much needed transparency and help rebuild the trust of Internet users around the world," according to the letter, which was addressed, among others to Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, who is one of the sponsors of the USA Freedom Act.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is

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