The disclosures about the National Security Agency's massive global surveillance by Edward Snowden, the former information-technology contractor who's now wanted by the U.S. government for treason, is hitting the U.S. high-tech industry hard as it tries to explain its involvement in the NSA data-collection program.
Just yesterday, a gaggle of 22 large U.S. high-tech firms -- including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo which have acknowledged they participate in NSA data-gathering efforts in some form, if not exactly as Snowden and some press reports have described it -- begged to be freed from the secrecy about it in their pleading, public letter to President Obama, NSA director Keith Alexander, and a dozen members of Congress.
The July 18 letter from America's high-tech powerhouses, which was also signed by almost three dozen non-profit and trade organizations as well as six venture-capital firms, begged for "greater transparency around national security-related requests by the US government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers" in terms of how much information the government demands on high-tech customers and subscriber accounts and how.
The letter begged for the U.S. government to make the amount of requests the government makes related to national security for individual customer information public.
"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 US-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications.," the letter to President Obama, Congress, the NSA director and Director of National Intelligence, stated yesterday.
The revelations last month from Snowden about NSA's extensive involvement in U.S. high-tech firms for purposes of information collection has suddenly put the U.S. high-tech industry on the defensive as they struggle to offer an explanation about all this to their global users while still bound by secrecy under the U.S. Patriot Act. There's no indication yet from the White House or others in government that any change in the NSA spying program, which relies on the participation of U.S.-based firms, will change.
"This should be debated in a public setting," said John Dickson, principal at security firm Denim Group and a former U.S. Air Force officer, about the situation in which NSA's global surveillance is tied so clearly to U.S.-based companies. He noted the U.S. government has actually said little but the media much.
This is all putting tremendous pressure on the U.S. high-tech industry, especially abroad in Europe where privacy questions may be making U.S. industry seem less competitive. This week Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president, legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft, issued a public statement that sought to clarify Microsoft's participation in the U.S. government's content gathering methods.
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