Surveillance law reform is not optional

camerasToday, some of the world’s biggest technology companies have spelled out the principles that they believe should underpin the balance between privacy and security online.

In full page advertisements eight firms, including Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, signed a joint letter calling for Governments to adopt the following principles to underpin a reform of surveillance legislation:

  • Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information:
  • Oversight and Accountability
  • Transparency about Government Demands
  • Respecting the Free Flow of Information
  • Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments

We wholeheartedly support these principles and call for the British Government to take urgent steps to adopt them.

In their letter, addressed to President Barack Obama and members of the US Congress, the firms said government surveillance efforts should be “clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight”. They said: “We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual.”

Microsoft vice president Brad Smith said: “We obviously all want to live in a secure world but we all want to live in a world as well where security is balanced with personal freedom and privacy. We recognise that information technology is a powerful tool for individuals but people won’t use technology they don’t trust. In our view governments have put that trust at risk. Governments need to help restore it.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, has responded by stating that: “I think there is a perfectly reasonable argument for saying that if a human eye is not reading innocent emails, then we do have to extract from the vast number of internet communications that tiny number that relate to serious terrorist plots,” he told the Today programme. So I start off by recognising that in the modern world the terrorists use all the technology available to them. It would be foolish for the intelligence agencies in free societies not to start using that technology. However, they can’t be allowed to determine themselves what the rules are. They don’t at the moment. Government, Parliament has laid down rules.”

There can be no doubt that the surveillance laws of Britain, the US or countless other countries around the world are not fit for an internet age. Britain’s own laws were written before many of these companies even existed.

Governments should not need to be told by private businesses that it is wrong to collect data on every citizen, through secret processes subject to little or no oversight. Sadly that is the position we find ourselves in. This statement of principles, by some of the world’s biggest companies, is a watershed moment and one that cannot go ignored in any country that regards itself as a democracy.

These businesses represent trillions of dollars of global revenue, highlighting the significant risk to the digital economy of those nations who do not take concerns about web surveillance seriously.

For any Government that seeks to set an example to the world and properly balance security and privacy in an age when the internet is part of the daily fabric of life, these principles offer a clear measure of whether they are living up to their own rhetoric.