Big tech companies are defying U.S. authorities for the sake of transparency

Many big technology companies such as Facebook and Google are moving away from keeping government requests a secret from the people. They say that people have a right to know in advance of what data the government is seizing for investigations. They're giving many people a chance to testify against these disclosures. However, prosecutors have warned that the companies may undermine cases by informing criminals, and in doing so the criminals may end up deleting incriminating data.

According to The Washington Post, The industry is trying to move away from being compliant after last year's NSA revelations. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google are updating their policies to be more transparent with users, unless specifically gagged by a judge, or another legal authority figure. Yahoo also announced similar changes in July. It is said that many companies will begin to ignore requests to not alert users of the data being collected, and that investigators let go of data demands to stop suspects learn of the inquiries. 

The Justice Department believes that these policy changes will "threaten investigations and put potential crime victims in greater peril," The Washington Post mentions.  The department spokeman, Peter Carr, says that “risks of endangering life, risking destruction of evidence, or allowing suspects to flee or intimidate witnesses are not merely hypothetical, but unfortunately routine."

The new policies do not affect requests by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, which must be kept secret by law. Administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI for national security carry binding gag orders, as well. In the past the government has allowed people affected by searches and seizures to be notified, although not right away. This has not exactly been the case recently, which is why a news source has been created to leak news about the NSA, and other government wrong-doings.

Twitter, and Google have been routinely notifying users of data collection, although Google has recently changed a policy to explain certain situations when this information cannot not be given to the public. Google has stated that “We notify users about legal demands when appropriate, unless prohibited by law or court order." Apple is also moving towards transparency as well. “Later this month, Apple will update its policies so that in most cases when law enforcement requests personal information about a customer, the customer will receive a notification from Apple,” a company spokeswoman stated.

After Snowden leaked documents of government surveillance, many companies are starting to blow off federal subpoenas, and insist that authorities acquire search warrants instead. Subpoenas can be issued by many authorities, in contrast to search warrants which can only be given by a judge. For other data, like senders and recipients of emails, companies still hand this data over but disclose it to the public beforehand. “That was one of the purposeful burdens that was supposed to limit government surveillance,” stated Marc Rotenberg, an executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Georgetown University law professor.

These changing policies of tech companies means that investigators will either have to stop data requests (which is highly unlikely), allow greater transparency, or continue to seek search warrants and gag orders from judges, which takes some time to acquire. “It has the potential to significantly impair investigations”, mentions Jason M. Weinstein, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Justice Department. 

Ronald T. Hosko, a former FBI special agent who in the past supervised the criminal division at the Washington field office, says that user notification has hurt the development of cases because suspects may end up destroying evidence that is crucial to ongoing investigations. He claims the changes have been made to protect the public images of the companies at hand, and not to protect public safety. He says that “My fear is that we will be less secure in our country, in our houses, because of political decisions, because of the politics of the day, rather than what will keep us safe,” adding that “'[he's] concerned that that gets people killed, that that gets people hurt.”

Many of the companies have stated that they make exceptions to their policies in cases where potential victims would be in imminent danger, especially when cases involve the safety of a child. They say that exceptions should be made by a judge, and not by an investigator or a lawyer.

Source: The Washington Post | Image via Digiphile

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