Privacy Advisor

Tech Firms, Lawmakers Respond to NSA Leak

June 12, 2013

By Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/US, CIPP/E

As the recent NSA disclosures ripple their way through the privacy community, our continuing coverage today looks at reactions from major U.S. tech companies and several U.S. lawmakers, as well as the inevitable rise of lawsuits being filed and potentially fraying relations between the U.S. and EU over past and future data-sharing agreements.

U.S. Tech Businesses Speak Up

Several major U.S. technology firms cited in the NSA leaks have spoken out, asking the U.S. government to allow them to provide their users with more information about national security requests. The Washington Post reports that Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot has urged the government to allow the social networking company to “include more information about the size and scope of national security interests” so that it can provide users with “a complete picture of the government requests we receive and how we respond.”

In an open letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote that the company’s compliance with government requests and “assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue.” Drummond continued, “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.”

Perhaps the largest single action includes a coalition of 80-plus privacy groups and Internet firms that have joined forces to call on Congress to end the blanket-style data surveillance programs, TIME reports. StopWatching.Us includes Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reddit and the American Civil Liberties Union as well as conservative groups Freedom Works and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. In an open letter to Congress, the group writes, “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 group advocates for reforming Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, creating a special investigative committee and holding “accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible” for the surveillance.

Pending Lawsuits

On the heels of the incident’s first lawsuit against the spying programs, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the NSA’s USA PATRIOT Act phone surveillance program. Some privacy advocates have said that collecting the metadata from phone carriers reveals more sensitive information than the PRISM program’s online surveillance.

However, the Associated Press reports on the past failures of lawsuits challenging widespread government surveillance programs. In 2006, telecommunications technician Mark Klein alleged that AT&T was permitting U.S. spies to gather large consumer datasets without a warrant. In response, dozens of consumer lawsuits were launched against both the government and phone carriers themselves, to no avail. The various lawsuits were bundled into one suit and went before a federal judge in San Francisco. Most were dismissed after Congress handed out retroactive immunity to the telecommunications providers from legal action—a move backed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The sole remaining suit continues to work its way through the courts system.

And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has already dismissed a lawsuit brought against President Barack Obama, the head of the NSA and other leaders of major U.S. intelligence agencies in CCR v. Obama.

U.S. Lawmakers Respond

CNET News reports that eight U.S. senators have called for an end to the “secret law” governing how U.S. intelligence agencies electronically gather information on U.S. citizens. The bipartisan group of senators—including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Al Franken (D-MN)—introduced a bill on Tuesday to declassify FISA court opinions. Wyden said, “It is impossible for the American people to have an informed public debate about laws that are interpreted, enforced and adjudicated in complete secrecy.”

However, Franken did defend the NSA surveillance programs saying they were not “spying on the American people” and had prevented terrorist attacks. He noted he was “aware” of the programs and has “a high level of confidence that this is used to protect us.” A Franken spokesman did say the senator “voted against reauthorizing the FISA Act because of the lack of transparency after he co-sponsored and voted for three separate amendment that would have improved the bill on transparency and privacy,” The Hill reports.

EU-U.S. Relations

According to Reuters, European lawmakers have been “rattled” by the recent surveillance disclosures and are threatening to dismantle data-sharing agreements with the U.S. Referring to existing data-sharing agreements—the SWIFT and airline passenger name agreements—Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser said, “It is time we grasped the nettle here and put our minds to ending the program.”

And EU officials have demanded “swift and concrete answers” from the U.S. government about its spying programs, The Guardian reports. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has laid out seven questions she said need to be answered by the U.S.

Opinion

As always, with a game-changing world event, opinions across the political spectrum are prevalent. In a column for The Guardian, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei—who is currently under house arrest in his country—wrote that, with such surveillance programs, the U.S. is behaving like China. “This is an important moment for international society to reconsider and protect individual rights,” he wrote.

In an article for Slate, Farhad Manjoo opines about the role of whistleblower Edward Snowden and the NSA. “The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy?” Manjoo asks. “And now, after it has just proven itself so inept at handing its own information, the agency still wants us to believe that it can securely hold on to all of our data?”

Read more by Jedidiah Bracy:
NSA Leak Continues To Send Shockwaves Through Privacy World
Reactions to NSA Disclosures Continue
The NSA’s PRISM Program and Reactions
Council of European Union Releases Draft Compromise