When the biggest Internet companies agree on anything, that's news. When the thing they agree on is taking a strong, direct, unequivocal stance against the federal government? That's big news. And that's what happened today.
The great eight
In a signed open letter to the president and congress posted to ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo all called for Uncle Sam to put a leash on the NSA. Their requests are eminently reasonable.
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The letter urges three huge reforms:
- Limits on data collection. That is, an end to the all-you-can-eat data buffet the NSA has been gorging itself on for the past decade. No more bulk data collection -- if you suspect somebody of ill deeds, get a warrant, dammit.
- Actual oversight. In other words, let's melt down the rubber stamp that's been used to approve nearly every request ever made by the surveillance-industrial complex and replace it with a process that considers the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the spooks are overreaching. Essential to that is an adversarial process where someone represents the interests of the not-yet-accused-but-still-spied-upon parties in question.
- Transparency. Yeah, we know, they're spies, what they do is secret. But the great eight are asking for the ability to reveal the breadth and depth of intelligence requests, so the public can gauge if it's Spooks Gone Wild time again.
The letter also calls for international agreements regarding the free flow of information and mutual legal assistance treaties -- which speaks as much to the behavior of repressive foreign governments as our own.
Some privacy wonks like Epic's Marc Rotenberg have pointed out, however, that the companies putting their John and Jane Hancocks to this letter could help out a great deal by not collecting so much personal information or hanging on to it for so long, thus making it a less irresistible target for the spies. On that point, the letter is conveniently mum.
Did I say wow? I meant WOW
Meanwhile, the spook spying scandal gets more and more absurd. As the Guardian's James Ball reports, the NSA and GCHQ weren't content with tapping the phones of flesh-and-blood humans -- they had to go into the virtual realm. In addition to the Googles, Facebooks, Verizons, and AT&Ts of the world, they targeted World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live:
The agency's impressive arsenal of cable taps and sophisticated hacking attacks was not enough. What it really needed was a horde of undercover Orcs.
That vision of spycraft sparked a concerted drive by the NSA and its UK sister agency GCHQ to infiltrate the massive communities playing online games, according to secret documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life. There were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games' tech-friendly users.
Because if the terrorists attack the IBM Pavilion or Dell Island in Second Life, the loss of virtual life could be catastrophic. People might be forced to re-create their absurdly costumed, indeterminately gendered avatars. Oh, the inhumanity.