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Monday, December 9, 2013

Technology Companies Demand Surveillance Reform

The New York Times reports:

Eight prominent technology companies, bruised by revelations of government spying on their customers’ data and scrambling to repair the damage to their reputations, are mounting a public campaign to urge President Obama and Congress to set new limits on government surveillance. 
On Monday the companies, led by Google and Microsoft, presented a plan to regulate online spying and urged the United States to lead a worldwide effort to restrict it. They accompanied it with an open letter, in the form of full-page ads in national newspapers, including The New York Times, and a website detailing their concerns.

And from the companies' website:

The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information. 
While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed. 
Consistent with established global norms of free expression and privacy and with the goals of ensuring that government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight, we hereby call on governments to endorse the following principles and enact reforms that would put these principles into action.
The Guardian reports on this development here.  The BBC's coverage is here.

While I think that this is a significant development, and while it will be interesting to see how the government responds to these powerful voices, I want to note that focusing calls for reform to the internet domain may be too limited of a reaction to the government's surveillance.  Those who are concerned with the overreach of government police power would do well to leverage popular discontent with the government's internet surveillance into a broader criticism of surveillance and searches in general.  After all, internet surveillance is only one part of the government's broader surveillance practices and its exercise of police power.

An approach that channels collective interests into broad reforms may end up helping those whose privacy interests are infringed the most -- for example, those who are constantly stopped and frisked -- in addition to achieving stronger safeguards for information shared with websites.  A narrow focus on internet surveillance is the may detract from a push for broader change, and I hope to explore the potential for such change and the potential for distractions in a future paper that I described in more detail here.  I hope to work on this project in more depth once my final exams are finished.

I don't mean to say that this move by the internet companies is a bad thing for privacy advocates.  The call for reform is certainly a step in the direction of limiting government police power, and a general push to limit this power may gain momentum from this development.  But I do want to emphasize that maintaining perspective is crucial -- especially as the big players in this issue make their positions known.

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