July 18, 2013 at 1:00 PM ET
Dozens of companies, non-profits and trade organizations including Apple, Google, and Facebook sent a letter Thursday pushing the Obama administration and Congress for more disclosures on the government's national security-related requests for user data.
Together with LinkedIn, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Twitter and many others, the companies asked for more transparency of secret data gathering in the letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander and national security leaders in Congress.
Tech companies have been scrambling to assert their independence after documents leaked last month by former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden suggested they had given the government direct access to their computers as part of the NSA's secret surveillance program called Prism.
Such data collection activities are overseen by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and largely done under the laws of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the USA PATRIOT Act.
The classified nature of the data gathering has barred the participating companies from disclosing even their involvement, let alone the content of the requests.
The leaks have renewed a public debate over the balance between national security and privacy, and have put tech companies in an awkward position, especially because many have been assailed for their own commercial use of customer data.
Some companies, including Facebook and Apple, in June struck an agreement with the government to release some information about the number of surveillance requests they receive. But they were limited to disclosing aggregate government requests for data without showing the split between surveillance and criminal requests, and only for a six-month period.
In Thursday's letter, they asked to be allowed to regularly report statistics on the number and scope of user data requests done under specific national security authorities and the number of individuals, accounts or devices affected by those requests.
"This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use, and to international users of U.S.-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications," the letter said.
The letter also asked Congress to pass legislation that would require the federal government to make transparency reports and let companies disclose user data requests without having to first ask the FISA Court for permission.
Co-signers included investors such as Boston Common Asset management and Union Square Ventures, as well as scores of associations including Human Rights Watch, Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform and conservative FreedomWorks.
One of the lawmakers the letter was addressed to is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who has introduced a bill that would expand reporting requirements for the secret programs, add more court reviews and move up the expiration of the authorization for some of the data collection by 2-1/2 years.
"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.
He said the Judiciary Committee will hold another hearing on the issue later this month.
The U.S. government is facing multiple court challenges over its surveillance programs. Yahoo this week scored a victory when the FISA Court sided with the Internet company and ordered the Obama administration to declassify and publish a 2008 court decision justifying the Prism program.
The government is expected to decide by Aug. 26 which parts of the 2008 opinion may be published, according to a separate court filing by the Justice Department.
The White House and the Department of Justice did not immediately comment on Thursday's letter.
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters.