What's New in Technology for August 2013

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Government Surveillance Efforts Attract Ire of Tech Leaders, Civil Liberties Groups

Civil liberties groups and technology companies – including several that had been frequent targets of privacy advocates in the past – have banded together to urge the President and Congress to be more open about the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts. The controversy regarding the government’s secret surveillance of telecommunications and the Internet has been on the boil ever since Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor who claims to have worked for the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, revealed classified information about the U.S. Government’s spying programs. The leaks about NSA were published first by The Guardian, a reputable British daily newspaper.

At the center of Snowden’s allegations are two separate charges. The first is that the NSA operates a phone monitoring system – gathering hundreds of millions of phone records a day – to create a database to find out if terror suspects have been in contact with people in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration. The U.S. Government is defending its phone-tracking program vigorously as part of a “highly sensitive and…still classified intelligence-collection program.”

The other surveillance program, which has attracted the attention of heavy-hitters like Microsoft and Google, involves an Internet program dubbed PRISM. This is the means by which the NSA and the FBI can tap into U.S. Internet companies to gather information on their users – to review users’ audio, emails, photographs, videos and even track their searches. All this is intended to help identify suspicious behavior that begins outside the United States. In his disclosures, Snowden alleged that NSA analysts had the ability to target anyone – “from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President, if I had a personal email.”

The coalition that has formed to challenge the government on its use of PRISM may appear to be a strange mix of compatriots, but they are united in their desire to see more accountability and transparency from the NSA. A letter with some 50 signatories was delivered at the end of July asking the government to lift the restrictions that stop companies from reporting the number of government requests they receive for surveillance activities for national security reasons. The group also asks the government to issue its own reports giving an overview of the information-gathering they have requested from telecommunication and technology companies.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization that organized the letter calling for transparency, has attracted support from technology companies, industry groups and press advocacy groups. The organization believes that the public has a right to know about the extent of the U.S. Government’s surveillance over the Internet, and that the public needs to know that the companies that were co-opted for this purpose were not allowed to divulge what was happening.

The inclusion of major companies like Google in this protest indicates the level of concern created by the Snowden revelations. The big players have been accused of paying scant attention to customers’ civil liberties and privacy rights. In the past, they’ve produced reports itemizing government information requests, and now they are asking for permission to include information on how many requests involved national security, and how many users and accounts were affected by each government request.

The debate over what is illegal and unconstitutional versus what is critical for national security will not be resolved quickly. From a business perspective, the key issue might be the simple fact that Internet communications are not secure. Even if your communications are not matters of national security, if they’re sensitive and could cause damage to your business reputation, think carefully before you hit “send.”


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