Google joins Apple, others in calling for spying controls, as Patriot Act vote nears

With a key, spying-related section of the Patriot Act up for reauthorization, tech heavyweights team up with other groups in outlining "essential" changes to US surveillance policies.

Charlie Osborne Contributing Writer
Charlie Osborne is a cybersecurity journalist and photographer who writes for ZDNet and CNET from London. PGP Key: AF40821B.
Charlie Osborne
3 min read

Former NSA chief Keith Alexander testifies before Congress in 2014, as a protester looks on. With the surveillance-related Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act up for reauthorization this year, Google has joined other tech firms in sending a letter to policy makers outlining needed reform to US surveillance practices.
Former NSA chief Keith Alexander testifies before Congress in 2013, as a protester looks on. Surveillance-related Section 215 of the Patriot Act is set to expire June 1. Alex Wong/Getty Images

With an important surveillance-related section of the USA Patriot Act up for reauthorization this year, Google has teamed with other tech firms in sending a letter to lawmakers and others that spells out needed changes to US spy policies.

On Wednesday, Google revealed in a blog post that it has joined the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, civil rights groups and trade associations in sending the letter, which promotes transparency, accountability and an end to the bulk collection of data.

The letter (PDF) -- addressed to government figures including US President Barack Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and various House members -- underscores the need for reform that will both protect national security and preserve the right to privacy. Google also posted a page online where people can add their name in support of the reforms.

The catalyst for the letter is the USA Patriot Act -- specifically Section 215, which the NSA points to as the legal basis for its bulk collection of data. Section 215 is set to expire June 1, and lawmakers must vote before then on whether to reauthorize the section or allow it to "sunset."

The letter outlines what it says are "essential" elements to surveillance reform, mentioning Section 215, as well as Section 214 -- another part of the Patriot Act that the NSA could invoke to justify its bulk collection and one that's not set to expire this year:

There must be a clear, strong and effective end to bulk collection practices under the Patriot Act, including under the Section 215 records authority and the Section 214 authority regarding pen registers and trap & trace devices.

Any collection that does occur under those authorities should have appropriate safeguards in place to protect privacy and users' rights. [Any reform] bill must contain transparency and accountability mechanisms for both government and company reporting, as well as an appropriate declassification regime for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions.

We believe addressing the above must be a part of any reform package, though there are other reforms that our groups and companies would welcome, and in some cases, believe are essential to any legislation.

The companies say it has been nearly two years since the first news stories revealed the scope of the NSA's spying, and that "now is the time to take on meaningful legislative reforms" that maintain national security but also protect privacy, transparency and accountability.

The Reform Government Surveillance coalition now counts Apple, AOL, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and Google among its members.

The group's principles are based on the idea of placing "sensible" limitations on government surveillance powers and introducing strong checks and balances when governments are granted the power to spy -- to prevent abuse and keep the concept of privacy intact. In addition, the group promotes transparency concerning government demands for data imposed on technology companies, as well as respecting the free flow of information across borders.

David Drummond, chief legal officer at Google, commented:

We have a responsibility to protect the privacy and security of our users' data. At the same time, we want to do our part to help governments keep people safe. We have little doubt that Congress can protect both national security and privacy while taking a significant, concrete step toward restoring trust in the Internet.

This story originally posted as "Google joins Microsoft, Apple, others in surveillance reform plea" on ZDNet.