Mozilla and Google join in rally for more transparency into government surveillance

Mozilla heads 85-member coalition StopWatching.us; Google asks government leaders for permission to be more open

Tech companies and privacy groups have launched a number of separate campaigns in recent days aimed at coaxing the U.S. government to provide greater transparency into its newly revealed digital-surveillance initiatives, including PRISM. Some of the organizations involved in these efforts, such as Google and Mozilla, are also using these calls for transparency as an opportunity to boost their public images.

Among these efforts, 85 organizations, including Mozilla, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Reddit, Mozilla, and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), have launched a campaign called Stopwatching.us. The coalition has sent a letter to Congress "demanding swift investigation and reform in light of the recent revelations about unchecked global surveillance."

The letter denounces the NSA's surveillance program as illegal, noting, "This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens' right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy."

The coalition has laid out several reforms in its letter to Congress. Among them, the participants are asking for a reform of the Patriot Act, removing a loophole that was "misused to force Verizon to provide the NSA with detailed phone records of millions of customers."

The group also called for reform to the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendment Act, which "allows the government to conduct mass surveillance on American and international communications nearly without restriction." The coalition wants the formation of a Congressional investigatory committee to investigate and report on the extent of domestic spying, and it wants Congress to create a list of reforms to end unconstitutional surveillance.

Mozilla: We can protect your only data so much

Alex Fowler, who leads privacy and public policy for Mozilla, laid out his organizations case for launching StopWatching.us in a blog post. He observed that there's an inherent and intuitive risk of exposing one's data when sharing information online. "That's part of using an open, highly distributed, worldwide communications medium," he wrote.

He also said users have to accept some level of responsibility if information they choose to share through posting updates and images on social networking or sharing geolocation data on their mobile devices becomes exposed. "[These instances] are pretty well understood, and users are able to take some steps to learn about these data practices through their experience using them or by referring to privacy policies and terms of service," he wrote.

"However, exposures resulting from government-sponsored online surveillance are entirely separate from whether we choose to share information and what those sites say they will or will not do with our data," Fowler continued. "That's because, at least in the U.S., these companies are required to respect a court order to share our information with the government, whether they like it or not."

He noted that Mozilla hasn't received any such order to date, "but it could happen to us as we build new server-based services in the future."

He also talked up Mozilla's track record in helping to protect user privacy with such technologies as Do Not Track, Persona, and the Collusion Add-on for Firefox.

Mozilla is in a relatively enviable position; unlike Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and others, it wasn't among the companies cited as providing the NSA direct access to its data the PRISM program. Those other companies have work to do in assuring customers that their privacy is being protected.

Google: We really want to open up

To that end, Google today sent an open letter to the offices of the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting permission to publish more national security request data. Google also used the letter to say "assertions in the press" that its "compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue."

According to Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, the fact that the government severely limits how much Google can disclose about those national security requests raises doubt and distrust among its users.

"We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures -- in terms of both the number we receive and their scope," the letter reads. "Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide."

This story, "Mozilla and Google join in rally for more transparency into government surveillance," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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