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Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, world+dog urge NSA transparency

Letter to Obama, Congress: 'More disclosures on secret data gathering, please'

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A veritable Who's Who of the tech industry has sent a letter to the director of the US National Security Agency, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Congressional national security watchdogs, urging that there be more transparency relating to the government's requests for user data.

The signers include Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, and "many others," Reuters reports, including "dozens of companies, non-profits, and trade organizations" such as high-powered investment groups and "scores" of associations that include Human Rights Watch, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and even the conservative group FreedomWorks.

The ACLU and FreedomWorks as co-signers – government overreach makes for strange bedfellows, it appears.

The NSA chieftan, General Keith Alexander, said that he would consider the request. "We just want to make sure we do it right, that we don't impact anything ongoing with the FBI," he said. "I think that's the reasonable approach."

Needless to say, the Snowdenian revelations about the NSA spying on gathering data about users' phone calls and internet usage have put US tech companies in an embarrassing – some might say infuriating – bind, since current law requires that they comply with government requests for such info.

Or, as Alexander succintly put it, "They don't have a choice. Court order, they have to do this."

The letter's signers request that the government's digital gumshoes allow then to regularly release stats on the number and scope of data requests, and the number of users, accounts, and devices involved, and to be able to do so without having to ask a court for permission.

"From my perspective," Alexander said, "what they want is the rest of the world to know that we're not reading all of that email, so they want to give out the numbers. I think there's some logic in doing that."

In addition to requesting permission to issue regular reports about national security–based data requests, the letter's signers also suggest that Congress pass laws that would require the government itself to issue reports on its data-monitoring activities.

One of the congressional recipients of the letter, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has introduced a bill that would expand NSA oversight but also make it harder for companies to challenge the goverment's national security letter (NSL) demands for user data.

"Americans deserve to know how much of their communications data is being swept up by government surveillance, and the government's use of these authorities must be subject to strong oversight," Leahy said on Thursday, reports Reuters.

Leahy also said that his committee will hold another hearing on NSA oversight and judicial remedies later this month. With that in mind, it's a good time for US Reg readers to drop a quick note to their senators, especially if they are members of Leahy's committee.

You may not have as much clout as Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, et al., but whether you are for or against secret government data gathering, the US still remains a somewhat functional democracy – despite Jimmy Carter's opinion – and you still have the right to make your opinion known.

And if you complain loudly enough, you just might be honored by having your name placed on a special NSA list. You never know – literally. ®

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