Tech firms demand greater transparency into how feds use customer data

Government's secrecy on how it collects and uses customer data will serve to stifle Web innovation, Mozilla argues

Major tech companies, investment groups, nonprofits, and trade associations have united in calling on the feds for greater transparency into how the NSA, Department of Justice, and other agencies work with Internet users' personal data through programs like PRISM.

Companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google,, Dropbox, and Yahoo have signed an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress asking for the right to regularly report on the number of information requests that government agencies makes and under which laws that info is being requested, be it the USA Patriot Act, FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), or NSL (National Security Letter) statues. Some companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have published transparency reports, but the data tends to be decidedly vague.

The participants also are asking Congress to pass laws requiring "comprehensive transparency reporting by the federal government" and clear permission to let companies publish transparency reports without first securing permission from the government or the FISA Court.

Other signatories include nonprofits like the ACLU and EFF, trade organizations like the CCIA (Computer & Communications Industry Association), and investment such groups as New Atlantic Ventures and Y Combinator.

In addition the sending out the letter, the groups have created a White House petition echoing the letters requests for greater transparency; they've also coined a hashtag, #weneedtoknow, for following the cause.

Defending the request, Mozilla's Alex Fowler, who leads the company's privacy and public policy, argued that the government's secretive approach to information-gathering through such mechanisms as national security requests has the potential to hurt both users and businesses, as well as to stifle Web innovation. "[T]here's broad agreement that the way national security requests are being carried out have the potential to undermine innovative Web technologies, from the cloud to big data to mobile, not to mention search and social," wrote Fowler. "These practices put any company with user data in a position of not being able to fully live up to its privacy commitments and treating users outside the U.S. with fewer protections and rights."

Fowler predicted that unless the feds permit greater transparency, "developers will abandon ideas for new technologies or offshore them over a risk of growing numbers of government requests and the lack of resources to defend against and process them."

Investors, meanwhile, will shy away from "funding the next generation of online services" in the United States, Fowler argued.

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