In a sign that consumer concerns about the level of government surveillance of electronic media are having an impact on the nation's tech giants, Facebook, Google and many other technology companies are reportedly rethinking and reforming how they respond to government requests for private customer data.
According to the Washington Post on Friday, companies are becoming increasingly defiant of orders to deliver customer information and more transparent in terms of informing their users about these requests.
The Post reports:
Fueling the shift is the industry’s eagerness to distance itself from the government after last year’s disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance of online services. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google all are updating their policies to expand routine notification of users about government data seizures, unless specifically gagged by a judge or other legal authority, officials at all four companies said. Yahoo announced similar changes in July.
As this position becomes uniform across the industry, U.S. tech companies will ignore the instructions stamped on the fronts of subpoenas urging them not to alert subjects about data requests, industry lawyers say. Companies that already routinely notify users have found that investigators often drop data demands to avoid having suspects learn of inquiries.
“It serves to chill the unbridled, cost-free collection of data,” said Albert Gidari Jr., a partner at Perkins Coie who represents several technology companies. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
Acknowledging the importance of the revelations made possible by Snowden as well as the work of online civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Post describes how the landscape surrounding online privacy has changed dramatically in recent years, but especially since last summer when the first large-scale reporting on NSA spying began.
Experts interviewed by the Post say the changes are being driven by an attempt to fulfill demands by customers that their privacy be protected.
“Post-Snowden, there is a greater desire to compete on privacy,” said Marc Zwillinger, founder of ZwillGen, a Washington-based law firm that has major tech companies as clients. “Companies have had notice policies and cared about these issues for years. It’s only now that it’s being discussed at the CEO level.”
EFF is now preparing the release of its annual "Who Has Your Back?" scorecard, which tracks the privacy policies and performance of the industry's biggest players. "Last year," according to CNET, "neither Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, nor Yahoo got a gold star in the 'Tells users about government data requests' column of the report card, though Twitter and others did."
If the Post's reporting is accurate, it appears that the scorecards this year—despite outstanding concerns about the role these same companies are playing in mass surveillance and the use of "big data" for their own purposes—might show improvement.