WASHINGTON — Mounting revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance have alarmed technology leaders in recent days, driving a renewed push for significant legislative action from an industry that long tried to stay above the fray in Washington.
After months of merely calling for the government to be more transparent about its surveillance requests, tech leaders have begun demanding substantive new restraints on how the National Security Agency collects and uses the vast quantities of data it scoops up around the globe, much of it from streams of U.S. companies.
The pivot marks an aggressive new posture for an industry that often has trod carefully in Washington — devoting more attention to blunting potentially damaging actions than to pushing initiatives that might prove controversial and alienate users from its lucrative services.
Six leading technology companies — Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL — sent a letter Thursday to Senate leaders reflecting the sharpening industry strategy, praising the sponsors of a bill that would end bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans and create a privacy advocate to represent civil liberties interests within the secretive court that oversees the NSA.
“Transparency is a critical first step to an informed public debate, but it is clear that more needs to be done,” said the letter, sent to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of the bill’s sponsors, as well as three other senators. “Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs.”
Although historically wary of Washington, the technology industry has been bulking up its political operations in the nation’s capital for several years. It took a public stand against the Stop Online Piracy Act with a massive Internet protest last year. More recently, tech leaders made a high-profile push in the immigration debate, calling for more visas for foreign-born workers.
The tone of industry reaction to the NSA revelations has grown more aggressive since the first stories appeared in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper in June. Companies that initially were focused on defending their reputations gradually began criticizing the government and challenging it in court. Some companies also have worked to harden their networks against infiltration.
A turning point came with Thursday’s Washington Post revealing an NSA program that collects massive amounts of user information from Google and Yahoo as it moved among data centers overseas. To some, this amounted to a degree of intrusiveness that — though speculated about by privacy activists — was beyond what many in the industry thought possible.
“Clearly, this is something new and different,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank that receives substantial industry support. Mr. Hall said technology leaders are weary of the revelations. “Right now, it’s like, ‘Please make it stop!’ “
The technology industry backlash is especially striking in light of its once-cozy relationship with President Barack Obama, who got money and votes from Silicon Valley at historic rates last year.
Although Google general counsel David Drummond issued a statement Thursday expressing “outrage” and “the need for urgent reform,” a longtime Google security engineer better captured the industry’s mood in a post on Google Plus, a social networking service. “Even though we suspected this was happening, it still makes me terribly sad. It makes me sad because I believe in America,” wrote engineer Brandon Downey, after cautioning that he was speaking personally, and not for Google.
National security officials have rejected criticism of NSA’s collection of communications, particularly any suggestion that the agency had scooped up data under presidential authorities to avoid the greater oversight required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “NSA conducts all of its activities in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and policies — and assertions to the contrary do a grave disservice to the nation, its allies and partners, and the men and women who make up the National Security Agency,” said a statement the agency issued late Thursday.
For all the mounting frustration within the tech industry, the path ahead is murky. Most surveillance bills getting wide Capitol Hill circulation would not address NSA collection operations in other countries.
“To reform this is going to require passing a law that regulates NSA’s operations overseas, and none of the bills do that now,” said Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
There also are unanswered legal questions. Some scholars say NSA data collection from Google, Yahoo and their users might violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on illegal search and seizure, even if it happens in foreign countries.
Some privacy activists said tech firms share at least some blame for the extent of the government surveillance program. They collect detailed user data — much of it used to target advertising that generates company profits — that the NSA covets. The companies also have lobbied against laws that would limit data collection in Europe and elsewhere.