Tech firms take fight to the top, join forces on government Prism petition

Prism letter to the government
Mr. Tech goes to Washington

Tech firms that routinely have users petition them with requests beginning with the words "We the undersigned" are themselves sending a plea to the U.S. government.

"We the undersigned are writing to urge greater transparency around national security-related requests by the U.S. government," wrote the alliance of companies to the government.

Apple, Google, Facebook and Dropbox are part of 22 techie corps that pulled together to write a letter to President Obama, the U.S. Congress and heads of various spy agencies.

These Silicon Valley companies are unable to fully disclose their roles in the government's Prism surveillance program that allegedly compelled them to turn over users' data-rich files with a subpoena.

Microsoft has the most to prove

The roles of these tech firms were first outed by government-contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Guardian.

Microsoft has taken the biggest hit, allegedly cooperating with the FBI to spy on its users in a "team sport" effort, even when encrypted data was involved.

This is something the company denies, but can't talk about in full detail.

Steps to greater transparency

Microsoft and other tech companies implicated in Prism say they can't properly do damage control because a FISA gag order is in place.

The 22 undersigned tech firms want to change that, as outlined in their letter to the government.

"First, the U.S. government should ensure that those companies who are entrusted with the privacy and security of their users' data are allowed to regularly report statistics.

"Second, the government should also augment the annual reporting that is already required by statute by issuing its own regular 'transparency report' providing the same information.

"[This includes] the total number of requests under specific authorities for specific types of data, and the number of individuals affected by each."

The power of many

Also a part of the undersigned are 25 nonprofit organizations and trade associations that focus on privacy issues, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

With 47 top tech industry and privacy groups petitioning together instead of individually, the government may have to start being a lot more transparent about Prism.

Matt Swider