Apple, Google, and Others Push Senate to Limit NSA Spying

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Apple, Google, and several other Internet and technology companies are in a race against the clock to get the Senate to approve a bill that will end the NSA’s bulk data collection programs. Known as the USA Freedom Act, S. 2685, the bill aims to stop the government’s collection and storage of the electronic communications of U.S. citizens who have not been accused of any wrongdoing. As noted by Bloomberg, supporters of the bill are hoping to get it passed on November 18, to ensure that it becomes law before the Republican majority takes control of the Senate. Many Republicans support the current surveillance programs and there are fears that the bill would not be passed in a Republican-dominated Senate.

For millions of ordinary U.S. citizens, their right to privacy is at stake. Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of tech companies that includes Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and many others, recently sent an open letter to the Senate that urged passage of the bill in order to protect  “the rights of the individual” and “the freedoms we all cherish.”

However, for the tech companies, there is also billions of dollars at stake, as foreign governments and businesses shy away from American tech companies due to concerns about spying. These concerns were highlighted in another open letter sent to Senator Mitch McConnell from Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade organization whose members include many of the same tech companies that are part of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition.

“American technology companies have been hurt by reaction to the revelation of the U.S. government’s bulk data collection,” wrote Shapiro. “Many companies have lost business, or face laws designed to restrict data flows, due to foreign governments’ fear that the U.S. government can reach company-managed data at will. This distrust hurts U.S. companies competing globally for business, and could result in the loss of thousands of jobs. In fact, several companies, including members of CEA, have already lost contracts with foreign governments worth millions of dollars.”

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

While Shapiro didn’t cite specific examples of contracts that U.S. companies have lost due to spying concerns, his claims are backed up by an economic cost estimate provided by Forrester Research analyst James Staten. According to Staten, the NSA’s spying programs could cost the U.S. cloud computing industry up to $180 billion in lost revenue by 2016. This estimate does not include the economic impact that the U.S. government’s surveillance programs have had on the overall tech industry. For example, earlier this year Apple’s iPhone was described as a threat to national security by China’s state-run China Central Television (CCTV), due to fears that it could be used to spy on users, reports Reuters.

In May, the House of Representatives passed a Republican-backed version of the USA Freedom Act known as H.R. 3361. However, that version of the bill was opposed by many of the same tech companies that support Senate bill, S. 2685, for not going far enough. “Unfortunately, the version that just passed the House of Representatives could permit bulk collection of Internet ‘metadata’ (e.g. who you email and who emails you), something that the Administration and Congress said they intended to end,” noted the Reform Government Surveillance coalition in a letter to the Senate. “Moreover, while the House bill permits some transparency, it is critical to our customers that the bill allow companies to provide even greater detail about the number and type of government requests they receive for customer information.”

The tech companies’ push to limit the government’s surveillance programs comes over a year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first exposed the extent of the NSA’s bulk data collection programs in 2013. Since then, there has been a growing concern from the public and the tech industry about the privacy and security of electronic communications. Today, most major U.S. tech companies issue regular transparency reports that provide limited information on government requests for access to users’ data.

Tech companies have also stepped up their efforts to protect users’ data through improved security measures, which has sometimes drawn criticism from law enforcement officials. After Google and Apple implemented default encryption in the latest versions of the Android and iOS mobile operating systems, FBI Director James Comey criticized the companies for allowing people to “place themselves above the law,” according to Huffington Post. While it remains to be seen if the tech companies’ latest effort to curb the government’s spying powers will be successful, it’s clear that this controversial issue is far from settled.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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