Apple, Google, CEA, MS, Others Lobby Congress to Stop NSA Spying

Posted by at 11:33 am on November 17, 2014

A new bill in the US Senate is being rushed through in an attempt to curtail NSA spying on Americans, and make federal agency requests for data more transparent ahead of the January takeover of the body by Republicans. The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act (S. 2685), has won the backing of the Consumer Electronics Association, the Information Technology Industry Council, the Internet Association and many of the major tech firms. Apple, Microsoft, Google and others, as members of the CEA, are pushing the Senate to pass the bill.

The bill, which President Obama would be likely to sign, defunds one of the many spying programs run by the NSA and revealed by leaker Edward Snowden, in which the agency bulk-collects information on US citizens without cause or suspicion of any wrongdoing. Under the terms of the USA Freedom Act, the NSA would henceforth be required to first obtain investigative authority from normal (rather than secret) court channels, then request records from phone carriers. Under the legislation, carriers could report how many such request they have received, and the data supplied would not include sensitive information such as positioning data or the content of the phone call — the latter of which would require a traditional wire-tapping order from a court.

A letter has been sent to all senators, including incoming majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) by President and CEO of the CEA Gary Shapiro. He makes the case for the law by saying that US technology companies have lost “billions of dollars” in lucrative foreign contracts because of the NSA’s behavior and abuses, and that some countries no longer allow data to flow freely over the Internet for fear of having US agencies mass-collect data on their citizens, companies, and government officials.

“American technology companies have been hurt by reaction to the revelation of the U.S. government’s bulk data collection,” Shapiro says in his letter. “Many companies have lost business, or face laws designed to restrict data flows, due to foreign governments’ fear that the U.S. government can reach company-managed data at will.”

By some estimates, US tech companies have been shut out of over $180 billion in foreign data-management contracts over the revealed spying programs.

USA Freedom Act

In addition, argues Shapiro and other technology groups, the NSA’s routine violation of basic guaranteed freedoms and privacy enshrined in the US Constitution has resulted in consumer anger that is often misdirected to the companies that provide Internet service, hurting their efforts to secure customers’ privacy and be more transparent in how they handle sensitive data, which has led to trust issues even as the US pushes for ever-higher levels of technology that involve sensitive consumer data such as financial and health records. President Obama has repeatedly tried to get Congress to scale back certain aspects of the NSA spying programs, particularly the bulk-collection efforts, as it violates Americans’ civil liberties.

Apple, under both former CEO Steve Jobs and current leader Tim Cook, has been adamant that it does not cooperate with the US government on any sort of spying program, or offer any “backdoors” to data to the NSA or other agencies. Cook has increasingly positioned Apple as the leading technology company for security and the respect of users’ privacy, since its business model is one of the few among the largest tech companies that doesn’t rely on user tracking and profiling to foster ad sales, instead making its profits from hardware, software and services.

The company has introduced a range of privacy features in its latest operating systems, routinely offered transparency reports on government requests for data, lobbied for NSA reform and, in doing so, has incurred the wrath of the director of the FBI among other government officials. Apple’s encryption of FaceTime and iMessage messages, data stored on iCloud and in transit from or to iCloud using methods it cannot decrypt, its routine unwillingness to submit to extra-legal inquiries and searches, and its option of whole-disk encryption has enraged some law enforcement officials, and has prompted claims that the encryption will hinder law enforcement efforts (despite the continued existence of forensic software and other legal extraction methods).

The bill is being rushed through in an effort to pass the law before the Republican-majority Congress is seated in January. Most Republicans support the existing government surveillance programs, and will likely stall the bill or kill it outright once they take over. For example, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the top Republican on the Senate’s intelligence committee, has said there’s no urgent need to pass the bill, in an effort to delay the passage until after Republicans obtain a majority. The law authorizing the NSA to collect bulk phone records is set to expire on June 1, but if the US Freedom Act isn’t passed before January, Republicans are likely to renew the authorization rather than end it, and might have enough votes to override any presidential veto.

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