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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.

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.

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.”