NSA Overreach Awakens Tech Giants

Paul Sakuma/AP

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Finally, Google, Apple and the others begin to shake their fingers at the spy agency. By Dustin Volz

The most recent round of National Security Agency revelations have prompted major tech firms to publicly take a stronger stance against government surveillance activities, an escalation that could portend a shift in the way Silicon Valley does business in Washington.

A group of six tech behemoths—Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and America Online—sent a letter to lawmakers last week calling for legislation to curtail the NSA’s authority. The companies specifically championed the Freedom Act, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and former House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., with support from more than 80 cosponsors, for “making an important contribution to this discussion.”

The letter came in the wake of new details about NSA surveillance in The Washington Post, which reported about a program dubbed MUSCULAR that secretly breaks into the online communication channels of Google and Yahoo, scooping up millions of records every day.

This will further strain the relationship between Silicon Valley and the NSA because it involves intruding into the internal communications of the companies,” said Ed Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. “Rather than using court orders served on the companies, I think this will be seen as crossing a boundary that people didn’t expect government to cross.”

The tech lobby will likely view the new allegations—that the NSA went behind their backs to collect data the agency could already largely access through court orders, and then gloated about it—as a disappointing, if unsurprising, act of betrayal. But it is unclear whether the change in rhetoric will amount to any on-the-ground change for how Silicon Valley engages with federal policymakers, or if their posturing will impact any NSA bill’s chances of getting to the president’s desk.

(Related: Is There Anything Left for the NSA to Spy On?)

The tech giants for years have been looking for ways to better inform their customers about “the size and scope of their cooperation with the federal government,” said a Democratic aide who has been working on the Freedom Act. “The public comment was a big shift.”

The firms are now lined up with an array of interests seeking substantive reforms in the NSA’s code of conduct. That is itself a shift, since the tech lobby has long been seen as disinterested or even dismissive of Washington. The view has begun to change in recent years, however.

Google’s D.C. lobbying efforts have exploded over the last decade, from virtually no expenditures to more than $18 million in 2012, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is increasingly unrestrained in his lobbying for immigration reform.

Despite the endorsement of some of tech’s largest players, however, the Freedom Act still has a long road ahead. Current House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has made patent reform his top legislative priority before Congress adjourns for the year.

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