Facebook and Google ask Congress for surveillance reform (again)

Tech companies want to change laws that allow the government to monitor web data of non-citizens.

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Jeff Wasserman / Alamy
Jeff Wasserman / Alamy

It's no secret that the American government monitors the web data of non-citizens it considers potential threats. But major tech companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are looking to change the way that surveillance is handled by the government.

The government is authorized to look through the web activity of non-US citizens located outside the United States through Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is set to expire at the end of the year. The US House of Representatives argues that, "FISA Section 702 is one of the most important legal authorities to stop terrorist attacks." The tech companies don't disagree -- they aren't campaigning against reauthorization -- but in a letter obtained by Axios, they're asking that specific privacy-related concerns be addressed.

Companies such as Uber, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Snap want more government oversight of surveillance. They also want to disclose more about the specific requests they receive under this law, though it's not clear what the terms of disclosure would be. Additionally, tech companies are trying "reduce the likelihood of collecting information about non-US persons who are not suspected of wrongdoing," the letter says. More than 30 companies signed the letter, though, strangely, Apple was not among them. (We've reached out to Apple for comment, but have yet to hear back.)

It doesn't help that Congress has specific concerns about the number of Americans whose data has been collected (illegally) under FISA, which is only supposed to cover non-US citizens living in foreign countries. Privacy is such an important issue, especially as our personal details and web data are increasingly treated as a commodity.

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The United States government believes it's important to examine the web data of certain non-US citizens to prevent terror attacks and other anti-US actions, and companies like Facebook and Google are caught in the middle. These companies handle overwhelming amounts of sensitive information, and keeping their users' trust and protecting their privacy is crucial. When national security is involved, these two issues come into conflict. It's understandable that tech companies want to protect themselves and their users, but balancing the demands of national security with respect of users' privacy is not easy.

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