US technology giants issue letter to Barack Obama urging surveillance reform

Firms urge Obama for reforms as new leaks show gamers also were target of spies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 3:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 3:33am


Major technology companies, stung by poor publicity for having helped the US government access personal data, yesterday issued an open letter to President Barack Obama asking for tighter controls on surveillance.

As part of a global campaign to reform data collection, Google, Facebook, Apple and others said that concerns over national security should be weighed against individual rights.

"The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution," the letter said. "This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change."

The letter follows this summer's revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked details of the secret programs that critics argue violate privacy rights.

The balance has tipped too far in favour of the state … It’s time for a change

This came as new reports based on documents provided by Snowden showed British and American intelligence officers have been spying on gamers across the world, deploying undercover officers to virtual universes and sucking up traffic from popular online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life.

Important details — such as how much data was gathered, or how many players' information was compromised — were not clear, the reports said.

Though the campaign by technology giants was directed internationally, a letter on its website and published in US newspapers struck particularly at the United States government, whose exploitation of Silicon Valley firms has attracted particular scrutiny. CEOs and leaders of the companies made it clear they were personally behind reform.

"Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information," said Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. "The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right."

Marissa Meyer, the chief executive at Yahoo, said the disclosures had "shaken the trust of our users".

The letter was signed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo!

Obama has asked a panel of hand-picked advisers to report on the issue this month and recently said he will propose the NSA use "some self-restraint" in handling data.

He maintains, the NSA is not interested in reading people's emails and texts.

The technology companies have good reason to band together to pressure the government to set limits — the free flow of information is fundamental to their business models.

Information on consumers is critical to the advertisers that want to reach them.

But consumers need to be able to trust that their privacy concerns are safeguarded, said Joss Wright, a research fellow of the Oxford Internet Institute.

The firms are also concerned that governments outside the US, such as those in the European Union, might set tougher rules for businesses to protect the privacy of their citizens, Wright said.