Five questions answered on technology firm requests for US surveillance reform

Technology corporations are petitioning the US government to change their strategy on surveillance and allow the companies to disclose the quantity of requests that they are forced to cooperate with.

Eight technology giants, including Google, have requested the US government change its surveillance policies. We answer five questions on the requested reforms.

Which companies have made this request?

Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Yahoo! have clubbed together to request the US government makes “wide-scale changes” to its current surveillance.

The companies have formed an alliance on the matter called Reform Government Surveillance group.

What has the group said exactly?

In an open letter published on its website the group said:

We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.

The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual - rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.

This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change.

Why has this alliance come about now?

As the alliance's statement points to significant revelations this year about the extent of spying by the US government.

Documents were leaked in June this year by ex-US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that highlighted the various methods and frequent occurrence of US spying activities.

Since then further revelations have continued to leak, such as allegations the US has been spying on Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was also revealed the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been bugging closed discussions inside both the United Nations and the European Union.

How does this affect tech firms?

Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook have all confirmed they have complied with orders to hand over data relating to "national security matters" to the US authorities. The companies have been not allowed to share details of these requests or how many they have had with their customers.

Companies have requested they be allowed to publish details of data requests.

"Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information," they state.

"In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly."

What have individual companies said?

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook has said: "Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information.

"The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right."

While Larry Page, chief executive of Google, said that security of users data was "critical" for firms, but added the same had been "undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world.”

Senior engineers from Google and Facebook give testimony to a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing in 2010. The issues of consumer privacy have long been of concern to technology companies. Photo: Getty.

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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Harriet Harman warns that the Brexit debate has been dominated by men

The former deputy leader hit out at the marginalisation of women's voices in the EU referendum campaign.

The EU referendum campaign has been dominated by men, Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman warns today. The veteran MP, who was acting Labour leader between May and September last year, said that the absence of female voices in the debate has meant that arguments about the ramifications of Brexit for British women have not been heard.

Harman has written to Sharon White, the Chief of Executive of Ofcom, expressing her “serious concern that the referendum campaign has to date been dominated by men.” She says: “Half the population of this country are women and our membership of the EU is important to women’s lives. Yet men are – as usual – pushing women out.”

Research by Labour has revealed that since the start of this year, just 10 women politicians have appeared on the BBC’s Today programme to discuss the referendum, compared to 48 men. On BBC Breakfast over the same time period, there have been 12 male politicians interviewed on the subject compared to only 2 women. On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, 18 men and 6 women have talked about the referendum.

In her letter, Harman says that the dearth of women “fails to reflect the breadth of voices involved with the campaign and as a consequence, a narrow range [of] issues ends up being discussed, leaving many women feeling shut out of the national debate.”

Harman calls on Ofcom “to do what it can amongst broadcasters to help ensure women are properly represented on broadcast media and that serious issues affecting female voters are given adequate media coverage.” 

She says: "women are being excluded and the debate narrowed.  The broadcasters have to keep a balance between those who want remain and those who want to leave. They should have a balance between men and women." 

A report published by Loughborough University yesterday found that women have been “significantly marginalised” in reporting of the referendum, with just 16 per cent of TV appearances on the subject being by women. Additionally, none of the ten individuals who have received the most press coverage on the topic is a woman.

Harman's intervention comes amidst increasing concerns that many if not all of the new “metro mayors” elected from next year will be men. Despite Greater Manchester having an equal number of male and female Labour MPs, the current candidates for the Labour nomination for the new Manchester mayoralty are all men. Luciana Berger, the Shadow Minister for mental health, is reportedly considering running to be Labour’s candidate for mayor of the Liverpool city region, but will face strong competition from incumbent mayor Joe Anderson and fellow MP Steve Rotheram.

Last week, Harriet Harman tweeted her hope that some of the new mayors would be women.  

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.