A coalition of six tech giants is calling on Congress to enact new curbs on government surveillance.
“Recent disclosures regarding surveillance activity raise important concerns,” the online companies state in a letter to lawmakers. The companies -- Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and AOL -- add that they would like to see “substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms.”
The tech companies were responding to this week's jaw-dropping report that the National Security Agency had found a way to tap directly into Yahoo and Google data centers -- meaning that the NSA can gather information stored by those companies without asking them for it.
Until now, tech companies’ main response to news of NSA surveillance involved pushing for increased transparency: Google, Facebook and Yahoo went to court and sought permission to reveal more information about the governmental requests they received. But if the NSA can simply tap into the companies' data, it doesn't matter how many official requests it made.
The companies say as much in their letter to Congress. “Transparency is a critical first step to an informed public debate, but it is clear that more needs to be done,” they write.
Google, Yahoo and the other signatories obviously think that these latest NSA revelations pose a threat to their business. To some extent, they're right. Some privacy-conscious consumers probably will stop using those services and switch to other, more secure ones. In June, when Ed Snowden's revelations first broke, privacy company Abine reported that downloads of its anti-tracking software spiked by 54% while search engine Duck Duck Go saw use surge by 55% week-over-week. (Duck Duck Go, unlike Google, Bing and Yahoo, doesn't keep logs tying users' IP addresses to their search queries.)
Still, it's somewhat ironic that the tech companies now complaining to Congress have themselves been accused of collecting and sharing too much information about users. Consider, Google and Yahoo currently are defending lawsuits accusing them of violating people's privacy by scanning their emails for ad-targeting purposes. Facebook has been hit with more than one lawsuit for sharing people's information in ways they didn't intend. And AOL probably committed the biggest privacy gaffe of all, the Data Valdez, in 2006, when it publicly revealed users' search queries.