Tech and policy roundup: It’s all about your data

Today we take a look at some action at the corner of technology and policy. As has been the case lately, it’s privacy-flavored.

The big headline is tech companies are getting increasingly defiant of the government and its requests for user data. So, the Washington Post reports, companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are updating their policies to more often notify users when the government has requested personal information about them. So the tech industry continues to try to hang on to user trust after the Edward Snowden leaks about mass government surveillance put them in an uncomfortable position.

But the Post story itself points out that that this expanded transparency would apply mostly to government requests that are unaccompanied by gag orders, and won’t apply to requests by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves NSA requests. So it appears the tech companies really wouldn’t be sticking their necks out, say, like Twitter. As we’ve written, the San Francisco company has fought a couple of high-profile government requests for user information, and has hinted at possible legal action for an even greater transparency push.

Also notable, and a testimony to the work that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is doing: The Post report mentions that part of the companies’ motivation to make changes to their policies is to earn high ratings on the EFF’s  upcoming “Who Has Your Back?” report. We wrote last year that Twitter and Bay Area-based ISP were the only tech companies to earn all the stars the EFF awards in the report, which includes criteria such as “tells users about government data requests” and “fights for users’ privacy rights in court.”

• Meanwhile, one important issue addressed in the Big Data and privacy report released by the White House yesterday is the push to update the 1980s-era ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act) to include constitutional protection. Advocacy groups and others have urged policymakers including President Obama to require warrants for all government searches of emails and other communications stored in the cloud. (Under the ECPA, no warrants are required for such content that’s older than 180 days.) But David Kravets writes for Ars Technica that it’s unclear if any good will come out of the panel’s recommendation for change; lawmakers have already blocked efforts to update the ECPA.

• And back to NSA-related goings-on and the push for “reform”: The White House reportedly is seeking legal immunity for tech companies that comply with government orders to turn over user data.


Photo: Cooling units at the NSA’s data center in Bluffdale, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)



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