A bipartisan proposal now in Congress would allow companies to publically announce how they respond to requests for classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA).
Under the plan, the companies would be able to say how often that customer data has been handed over to U.S. intelligence agencies. It also would let businesses say the number of government requests they agreed to, and the number of users or accounts impacted by the requests.
The bill (known as the USA Freedom Act) also tries to clamp down on some other controversial surveillance practices.
The NSA has collected details on phone calls made by private citizens, and has collected details on e-mails, address books, and geo-location data from cellphones, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the two main sponsors of the new bill, said.
“Not only do many of these programs raise serious legal questions, they have come at a high cost to Americans’ privacy rights, business interests and standing in the international community,” the two argued in a recent article in Politico. “We also know that the FISA court has admonished the government for making a series of substantial misrepresentations to the court regarding these programs.”
The new bill would prevent the collection of massive telephone records of Americans and further protect citizens’ privacy rights. The bill would also allow for the naming of an advocate who would protect privacy rights and civil liberties before the secretive FISA (Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act) Court.
Several tech companies have been lobbying Congress on the need for surveillance reforms. These include Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo.
Tech companies want to “be permitted to disclose the number of government orders for information made under specific legal authorities,” according to a letter from TechNet and the Software & Information Industry Association that was mailed to an advisory board. In addition, the companies want to release “the number of individuals or accounts, including accounts of business customers, impacted by the orders received as well as the type of information that is sought by such orders.”
“There’s been a false impression that companies have been overly cooperative with surveillance requests,” Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, added in a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek. If companies could be more transparent it “will … show what they have been doing is more limited than some have assumed and, that when appropriate, they have challenged and pushed back.”
For instance, Jodi Seth, a Facebook spokeswoman, told Bloomberg the company is “seeking to be as transparent as possible about government data requests we receive to foster an informed debate about whether government security programs adequately balance privacy interests and public safety.”
Controversial surveillance practices came to light from document leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Among the allegations is that the U.S. government even monitored phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key U.S. ally.
“The government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood. It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community,” Leahy said in a statement. “Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough.”
However, it appears the Justice Department does not want to see companies releasing statistics on surveillance requests.
“If our adversaries know which platforms the government does not surveil, they can communicate over those platforms when, for example, planning a terrorist attack or the theft of state secrets,” a recent Justice Department document said.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi