(Bloomberg ) Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. and four other U.S. technology companies asked lawmakers to restrain the National Security Agency, saying they want to "counter erroneous reports" they give intelligence agencies direct access to their servers.
"Our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs," the companies wrote yesterday to Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, and three other lawmakers.
The companies, including Microsoft Inc., Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and AOL Inc., also want permission to publish statistics about how often they turn over customer data in response to legal orders by the U.S. government.
The NSA is under mounting scrutiny in Congress and abroad in response to revelations that it has spied on foreign leaders, broke into fiber-optic cables abroad and gathered the e-mails and bulk phone records of innocent Americans. Most of the revelations were exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia under temporary asylum.
"The volume and complexity of the information that has been disclosed in recent months has created significant confusion here and around the world, making it more difficult to identify appropriate policy prescriptions," the companies said in the letter.
Allowing companies to be transparent about interactions with the government will help them correct impressions that they give the NSA access to their servers or help the agency collect bulk Internet records, the companies wrote.
The NSA has tapped fiber-optic cables overseas in order to siphon off data from Google and Yahoo, according to an Oct. 30 report in the Washington Post.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee yesterday that agencies aren't tapping the networks of Google, said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the panel.
The NSA said in a statement yesterday it will "collect the communications of targets of foreign intelligence value, irrespective of the provider that carries them."
"U.S. service provider communications make use of the same information super highways as a variety of other commercial service providers," the agency said. "NSA must understand and take that into account in order to eliminate information that is not related to foreign intelligence."
Leahy joined with Republican Senator Michael Lee of Utah, a favorite of Tea Party activists, as well as Representatives James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, to introduce a bill Oct. 29 that would prohibit the NSA from collecting the bulk phone records of millions of Americans.
The legislation also would allow technology companies to report the number of government orders they have complied with and the number of users or accounts affected by government demands.
Apple, Facebook and Yahoo listed lobbying expenses on legislation related to NSA demands for data for the first time in third-quarter reports submitted to Congress.
"Allowing companies to be transparent about the number and nature of requests will help the public better understand the facts about the government's authority to compel technology companies to disclose user data and how technology companies respond to the targeted legal demands we receive," the companies wrote in their letter.
The Senate intelligence committee yesterday approved a competing bill that's silent on allowing the companies to disclose the data. The bill, approved 11-4, also wouldn't end the NSA's collection of bulk phone records.
It would codify most of what NSA already does and require more reports to Congress and the secret court that oversees the agency.
"The collection of phone numbers, which can be run when a terrorist target in another country calls an American number, is something in my view which protects this country," Feinstein told reporters after the committee vote. "I don't believe this is an imposition on people's privacy rights."
The collection of bulk phone records is conducted under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Most NSA spying abroad is done under the authority of a separate executive order. Feinstein said her panel doesn't have adequate oversight of spying the agency is doing under the order and she has initiated a review of those programs.
Google was "outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks," David Drummond, the company's top lawyer, said in a statement.
"We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems," and the spying "underscores the need for urgent reform," Drummond said.
There appears to be little appetite in Congress to limit NSA spying on foreign leaders or fiber-optic cables abroad.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said he has no intention of stopping the foreign spying and doesn't oppose it.
"They do it to us," Chambliss said in an interview. Asked who spies on the U.S., he said, "You'll have to ask the folks that do it."
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has spoken out against spying on innocent Americans, said the statements made by intelligence officials about spying on foreign leaders "is consistent with the understanding that I have had for years as a member of the intelligence committee."
"If people want to revise the rules for collecting on foreigners, I'm certainly open to discussing that," Wyden said in an interview. "Surveillance certainly has implications for our foreign policy."
NSA Director Keith Alexander has conceded there will be some new constraints on spying methods at home and abroad, while warning they may make the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Changes may include restricting the kind of data NSA can collect, how its databases can be mined, limiting the ability to eavesdrop on foreign leaders and requiring the agency to defend its requests against a privacy advocate before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The U.S. and allies need to determine if there's a better way for countries to protect their national interests when "everybody is spying on everybody else," Alexander said Oct. 30 at a Bloomberg Government cybersecurity conference in Washington.
"Catastrophic attacks are in our future," Alexander warned. "If we take away the tools we increase the risk and we ought to go into that with our eyes wide open."