Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook are banding together for a common cause. The competitors have joined a group of tech brands and civil liberties organizations pushing for answers from the federal government on digital surveillance.
To that end, they have written a letter addressed to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Agency (NSA) director General Keith Alexander and a host of other U.S. government officials, urging "greater transparency around national security-related requests by the U.S. government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers."
Beyond the four major tech titans, the likes of AOL, Digg, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Mozilla, salesforce.com, Twitter, Yahoo, Tumblr and Reddit have also signed the letter.
A Cry for Transparency
The tech companies and civil liberties groups made two specific demands. First, they argue, the U.S. government should ensure companies entrusted with the privacy and security of user data are allowed to "regularly report statistics" that reveal the number of government requests for information about their users made under specific legal authorities.
Along those same lines, the companies want permission to report the number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information was requested under each authority as well as the number of requests under each authority that sought communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information.
Second, the coalition wants government to augment the annual reporting that is already required by statute. The government should do this, the coalition writes, by issuing its own regular "transparency report" providing the same information: the total number of requests under specific authorities for specific types of data, and the number of individuals affected by each request.
What Happens Next?
"Basic information about how the government uses its various law enforcement-related investigative authorities has been published for years without any apparent disruption to criminal investigations. We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government's national security-related authorities," the letter states.
"This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use, and to international users of U.S.-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications."
We turned to Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to get his thoughts on the potential responses to the letter. With a broad coalition of more than 50 signors, he told us he hopes to get a positive response from "what seem like common sense reforms."
"From here, we could take it to the courtroom or pursue enactment of legislation," Higgins says. "Congress is getting very upset about the information revealed in the disclosures and hopefully there is the political will to do something about it. It's difficult to pass laws but we've seen broad bi-partisan support for action. The types of activities the intelligence community was engaging in aren't considered acceptable."