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PRISM companies beg Congress to pass laws letting them talk about PRISM

All of the companies issued carefully worded denials of willfully spying on customers except when required by law.


Kevin Collier


Posted on Oct 2, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 5:10 am CDT

The American tech companies whose names were dragged through the mud as part of the PRISM surveillance program have a request for Congress.

Please, please pass bills that let that let us talk about PRISM.

The specifics of what PRISM is are still somewhat hazy. We know from documents leaked by Edward Snowden that it’s designed to give the National Security Agency the ability to look at communications on a number of sites, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo. We know the program’s legally authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). And we know that all of those companies issued very carefully worded denials of willfully spying on any customers, except when they were required to by law.

So all those above companies—meaning all the companies named in the PRISM document, except that anomaly Paltalk—have formally requested the House and Senate Judiciary committees to pass bills that would make it legal for them to talk frankly about how they interact with the NSA. It’s also backed by a host of other tech companies, like Reddit and Twitter. Most of the country’s digital activist groups, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy and Technology, are on board, too.

In order to talk, those companies want Congress to pass two related bills: the Surveillance Order Reporting Act in the House and the Surveillance Transparency Act in the Senate.

As it currently stands, when a company gets an order from a FISA Court (FISC) to turn over information on a customer, everything around that act is classified. That means that if Google, for instance, wants to assure you that it’s exceedingly rare for it to to turn over customer information, it can’t back up that claim with actual numbers. It’s already tried publicly begging the Attorney General and FBI for the ability to do so.

As those bills are written, tech companies would be allowed to report estimates of how many FISC orders on customers they get a year, rounded to the nearest 100. And the government would have to even issue its own rounded report on how many requests it makes.

“Such transparency is important not only for the American people,” those companies and agencies wrote in a joint letter supporting the bill, “but also for international users of US-based service providers who are concerned about privacy and security.”

Which makes sense. Because as important as privacy is, those tech companies know that their profits may take a huge hit down the road if people don’t trust them.

Illustration by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Oct 2, 2013, 9:56 am CDT