Can Apple, Google and Facebook Etc. Stand Up to the Feds?

Not long ago, Apple revealed the frequency of requests for data it receives from government agencies, and the number was impressive.  In the first six months of 2012 alone, 1,000 to 2,000 pieces of data were requested by various agencies. These requests affected between 2,000 and 3,000 accounts, but Apple stated it complied with fewer than 1,000 of those requests. Most requests it receives are from stolen property incidents; it is rare Apple is asked to reveal photos or e-mails, the company said.

apple-store-hong-kong-china-march-city-center-march-hong-kong-china-very-popular-worldwide-brand-name-34787121That’s what we know.  But there could be a lot we don’t know. The Federal government has a gag order preventing Apple and others from revealing all information requests they receive, especially those related to ongoing investigations of potential terrorist plots. Apple opposes the gag and wants the freedom to disclose governmental requests to its customers. But it hasn’t gotten it yet.

Microsoft and Google would also like to tell us what the government is requesting from them. They filed motions in court in August for the right to reveal the frequency of requests for data from the Federal Government. Yahoo and Facebook joined them in September. Proceedings have been delayed to give the U.S. government time to negotiate. The tech giants want transparent open hearings and the gag orders lifted so they can address all of the false claims circulating around the Internet about their giving extensive data to government. They want to regain the trust of their users, or so they say.

In September, Brazil requested Facebook and Google store data pertaining to their citizens on servers located within its borders due to U.S. spying accusations. Last week Brazilian President Rousseff requested that all other legislative proceedings be put aside so they can develop a proposal requiring that citizen data be stored in Brazil.

Stop Watching Us is a coalition of over 100 public advocacy groups, researchers, whistle blowers, activists and companies from across all political spectrums that have joined together to declare, “We will not stand for the dragnet surveillance of our communications.”  They have organized rallies and just released the video below.

Six months ago, nobody seemed to be paying attention to the NSA’s widespread surveillance of just about everybody, it seems. And even now, I’m seeing replays of NSA NSADirector Keith Alexander saying “no” when asked by Congressional members if the NSA was accessing Americans’ data, and arguing that the NSA’s mission was to protect our civil liberties and privacy along with protecting the nation.

While the scandal about NSA has exploded, who knows how much surveillance really goes on?  The big players say they want to reveal what the Feds are asking for. But can we trust companies that basically mine our personal data for a living to protect our privacy?  And the irony is this:  Historically we have looked to the government to protect us from the rapacious behavior of big business.  Can we count on the opposite happening?

Dennis Cornwall
Emerging Media Graduate Student
Loyola University Maryland

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