NPR had an interesting story yesterday on the move by internet companies to limit government snooping on everyone while retaining a legitimate interest in getting information to thwart terrorist attacks. In particular, they wanted an end to the practice of getting blanket information on everybody and everything and get back to targeted data collection. I wrote about this issue yesterday and NPR says that Apple has joined the other seven companies in writing the open letter to the government, though the website still does not include it.
NPR spoke with David Drummond, the chief legal officer of Google, and the host Audie Cornish asked some pretty good questions.
CORNISH: So in the letter you’re essentially saying that if government wants a specific piece of data, you want a name. You want them to ask you about a specific person, not just ask for the whole data set.
DRUMMOND: That’s right. And that there be a process that everybody knows about, that’s open. And in the private sector, we’re actually – we’re very transparent about what we do. We are limited by laws that everybody understands. When people challenge our practices, we go into court. It’s an open court. Everybody knows what’s going on.
I think you’ve got a system, the structure in the government surveillance case is very different, where things are done in secret and no one really knows what the rules are. So we think it needs to swing, that pendulum, back to the middle.
CORNISH: In the letter, you also talk about transparency. What do you mean by that? What exactly would that look like?
DRUMMOND: Well, I think one of the biggest problems with all of this has been that the – sort of the interpretations of the rules, the applications of the rules, all of that has been done in secret. If we get requests from the government, I think users have a right to know what the companies are doing. And we try to do that as much as we possibly can.
We’re just limited by the current rules that say that we can’t talk about some of these requests.
Cornish made the point that skeptics will think that these companies are taking this action not out of any principles but because of their tarnished reputations concerning protecting their customers’ privacy and because they fear alienating and losing customers.
I doubt that the government will agree to what these companies are asking. The government spy agencies are like addicts who have discovered the pleasures of having unlimited access to drugs, except in their case it is information. They can only be weaned away using drastic measures. And the only forces that can stop them are the courts. Unless the companies are willing to mount a massive fight in the courts, for which they undoubtedly have the resources, their mere verbal opposition will have little effect.