back to article Tech firms send Congress checklist of surveillance reforms

More than 30 big internet companies including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have sent a letter to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee asking for specific reforms to the law used for carrying out mass surveillance. The letter [PDF] concerns Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has to …

  1. Flakk

    They're Not Wrong

    Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft all have the right idea in asking the federal government to stop abusing the data it has collected on millions of people.

    Still, I have to admit that I'd take a certain pleasure if the ranking congresscritter opened the congressional hearing by telling these companies, "Fine. You first."

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: They're Not Wrong

      I too found that "interesting" that it's only the data collectors who seem to be protesting. Not sure why other tech firms aren't complaining.

      1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        Re: They're Not Wrong

        @Mark 85 - Not all tech firms have a ravenous appetite for user data. If you do not collect much data other that needed to carry out a sale you will not be that interested or affected by the NSA or others shenanigans.

      2. Ian Michael Gumby
        Boffin

        Re: They're Not Wrong

        I too found that "interesting" that it's only the data collectors who seem to be protesting. Not sure why other tech firms aren't complaining.

        That's because they have no skin in the game.

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: They're Not Wrong

        "I too found that "interesting" that it's only the data collectors who seem to be protesting. Not sure why other tech firms aren't complaining."

        Maybe it's that unusually USAian thing about government not being allowed to compete with commercial operations where it might affect their profits.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: They're Not Wrong

      Wouldn't they just reply, "Oh? By what law can you compel us?"

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They're Not Wrong

      Absolutely.

      I trust the government more than I trust these companies because there's the law that should prevent them from abusing my data.

      I have friends who say "Who cares what Google knows... they can't arrest me. "

      Yet when you consider that 99.9999 of the people out there aren't doing anything illegal or warranting the Government(s) attention, yet Google, FB, Apple, etc ... take said information and monetize it at your expense.

      Think about this. The Government has to go and get a FISA court warrant to combine non-PII information which could yield PII data sets. Google, FB? The can just do it with a simple command and there's nothing to stop them.

      Imagine if Uber wanted to blackmail you in to making the use of their service to be kept private.

      All those late night rides... They could make a fortune.

      1. ArrZarr
        Devil

        Re: They're Not Wrong

        @AC Personally I feel the opposite. Google, Microsoft and FB are up front - they're collecting your data because they want to make money from it. If they stray out of the grey of probably legal and into the black of illegality, the world will come down on them like a ton of bricks.

        Time and again the FBI and GCHQ have proven that they will happily break the laws related to their data collection and so far they're getting away with it.

        Icon: Devil's advocate

      2. Swarthy
        Black Helicopters

        Re: They're Not Wrong

        I trust the government more than I trust these companies because there's the law that should prevent them from abusing my data.
        Should being the operative word. I think the gist of this article (and the complaints in Congress) is that the law is being "interpreted" in such a way that the security services are not being prevented from abusing data.

        Scenarios like the TLAs sucking up everything because "It's not collection until it's looked at" then the FBI scans the data without a warrant because "It's not new data" are what are worrying people.

        The data companies are more trustworthy, in that you can trust them to do whatever they can to make a buck; the TLAs are less trustworthy because we don't know their motivations.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The irony is so thick here!

    I guess Google, Amazon et al don't want competition in collecting data on US citizens from the government...

    I'm not sure why they are even wading in on this. While I agree 100% that the government has no business building/using such a database, these tech companies have no dog in this fight. They are up to their necks in shit, so calling out the government for being waist deep in shit isn't helping.

    Apple (who interestingly was not among the list of companies signing it) has the right idea - just try to lock everything down so the government can't find anything to add to their database from their customer's use of Apple products. The government is going to do what its going to do, irrespective of what Silicon Valley wants. In the current political climate, having all these tech companies weigh in probably makes it less likely for otherwise libertarian-leaning republicans to support their view, since they contribute significantly more to democrats than they do republicans.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The irony is so thick here!

      While I agree 100% that the government has no business building/using such a database...

      The government, rightly or wrongly, has long ago decided that it’s part of fighting crime / espionage / terrorism.

      I think we can all agree that these are all things that are definitely worth fighting.

      I wonder how useful such government acquisition schemes are these days. A load of encrypted traffic is nothing like as useful as being able to read that traffic. I suspect that the social network services have evolved to the point where not even a powerful and all seeing organisation like the US government can easily "see" inside all the traffic, and are reduced to a reactive acquisition request; a crime has been committed, here’s the warrant.

      The only people who can police the content "proactively" is the social networks, banks and OtT communication providers like WhatsApp. (The banks are already compelled by banking laws to be highly cooperative). And we really do want proactive policing - the whole idea is to stop bad shit happening in the first place, not just help the police sweep up the mess afterwards.

      The problem is that the companies are either not interested in policing their content, or do it very badly, or design their services /devices so that not even they can see inside the data streams, or worst of all obstruct live investigations into crimes that have already happened (I'm talking about WhatsApp refusal to say who the London attacker had been talking to just prior to his attack. They do hold that data (it's what drives the ad platform), it's just that they can't tell us what was said).

      So it's a bit of a stalemate, isn't it? The companies have the freedom to act that way, and that's what they do because it's the easiest, dumbest way to be taken "seriously" by their 'customers', at least that's the case in the USA. Meanwhile paedophiles, terrorists, criminals of all sorts, continue to use these services effectively immune to pre-emptive detection, save for some interesting advertising preference profiles.

      At least here in Europe breaking the stalemate is an active political issue, and not one that the network companies are winning. The contrast between opinion in the USA and the rest of the world is remarkable. Here in Europe we may be cynical of our politicians, but no one really hates the government, or disputes the need for effective police forces. In the USA quite a lot seem to actively loathe their federal government, etc. Weird. Well, perhaps understandable when one considers MS vs FBI over emails in Ireland and the FBI's absurd refusal to use existing treaty arrangements with the Irish authorities.

      Anyway, headlines like "Google, the Terrorist's Friend" really do resonate well with public perceptions in the UK. It's early days into the investigation into the Manchester bombing, but if it turns out he was using WhatsApp, or had been watching dodgy content on YouTube, or had relied on Apple's anti-gov communications, that's going to be more bad headlines for the companies.

      It's already socially unacceptable to have your own company's ads appear on YouTube next to a hate video, or on Facebook next to a racist rant, etc. Basically European governments do not need to go the full STASI on the social networks, all they need to do is assess those that are good enough / cooperative enough to be socially acceptable, and those that aren't, and make it illegal to advertise on the latter.

      It's really that easy, and that's what European governments will do. As it happens some of them have already become more draconian than that - €50m fines in Germany for just fake news.

      So, that's a prediction of how European governments will tackle the stalemate. And it will hurt the social networks business in Europe badly. To be good enough in Europe means policing their global content to the satisfaction of Europe. That's an expensive asymmetry.

      Knowing that, how can the companies adapt? They're mumbling about AIs and more reviewers, but that is clearly going to be inadequate. Facebook's leaked policies make it clear that they have very little intention of taking anything down, even child abuse. About the only thing they will take down is a photo of a nursing mother.

      In short they are not adapting. So their risk is that their non-US business is going to dry up, or start costing them some enormous fines.

  3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Gimp

    "The reality is that the measure must be reapproved by Congress "

    So Congress could just refuse to renew the clause.

    Which was why the provision for sunsetting it was put in the Bill in the first place (I suspect over lots of opposition from the snoopers).

    9/11 was 16 years ago. FISA and THE PATRIOT Act are both well overdue for reform, if not scrapping.

    Or is the Oceania US now on a continuous war footing with the rest of the World?

    1. Androgynous Cow Herd

      Re: "The reality is that the measure must be reapproved by Congress "

      Now? We've always been at war with Eastasia.

  4. GrapeBunch

    Scurrilously off-topic

    Scurrilously off-topic, but ... what would happen if I registered my browsing history at the Copyright Office? Would google et al have to remove it from their databases?

    1. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: Scurrilously off-topic

      Exactly who owns the browsing history? That seems to be the core question, and it might make for an interesting piece of litigation.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Scurrilously off-topic

        It can go down to the similar question, "Who owns the telephone conversation?" since it takes two to talk, so to speak.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rather hypocritical of the social media guys

    "Please do not perform mass surveillance as we do not like competition"

    I would not assume benign motives for the likes of Google and Facebook, as far as I can tell they are most likely just busy protecting the income they get from selling data to government themselves. Too strict laws on data collection would harm them far more than their government competition..

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Futile

    This letter basically says "please abide by the laws you've been igoring all this time"

    Government: yeah sure ok then (snigger)

  7. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    "And not only is all secrecy a sin, but it also isn’t going to work. My spies tell me that they are already in existence machines which can collect and tabulate all the relevant details about the private life of everybody in this theater and store in a space ‘that’ big. Now if this can be done, it will be done, because the machines are greater than men and their watchfulness is invincible, and if this is so our attitude towards them should be existential."

    - Quentin Crisp, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, 1978

  8. Down not across Silver badge

    Section 702

    In short, the authorities are trying to run out the clock on the request and many people suspect it's because if the true number of US citizens whose personal information has been seized and stored was released, it would completely undermine law enforcement's position and could even see the end of Section 702.

    Sounds like the House/Congress should just inform them that unless the numbers are provided by <insert reasonable date here>, Section 702 will be canned.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What in HEXKS NAME IS THIS ALL about??!

    IF you DONT LIKE YER INTANUT HISTIRY being USED to MAKE AMORICQ SAFE then DOMT SERF! IMONLy look atabTHREE SITES - one ABOUT PRSIDENT TRUMO AND fine LADY MADONNA" one about GIRLS IN BAKINIS holding GUNS (I like GUNS) and one anoutnPIGS. TRUMP is TRYING TO DO the right THUG THUNG THANG THING FOR America and he and duets Lady MECHANIO BEING A smile to my face and a THRONBING. as my gran used to say, it's better to be SAFE than TAKEN UP THE BUTTTT. But then she was a WHOOOOR.

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