One year after the Washington Post and the Guardian published the first stories containing Edward J. Snowden's leaks about U.S. government's widespread cyber-surveillance activities, Microsoft is calling for the Obama administration to address its "unfinished business" in reforming government surveillance.
Microsoft's top lawyer Brad Smith wrote a rather fiery blog post that challenged the U.S. government to "reduce the technology trust deficit it has created." Specifically, Smith wants the government to stop forcing technology companies to provide data about customers outside the U.S., end the bulk collection of phone communications data, reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, vow to stop hacking private systems, and reinforce its efforts to increase transparency and privacy protection.
"It's now apparent that the government intercepted data in transit across the Internet and hacked links between company data centers," writes Smith. "These disclosures rightly have prompted a vigorous debate over the extent and scope of government surveillance, leading to some positive changes. But more needs to be done."
The Snowden reports named Microsoft, along with other technology giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo, as one of the companies that cooperated with the National Security Agency's PRISM project by giving the agency direct access to user data. Now, the tables are turning against the government following a backlash against Internet and communications companies losing the trust of their customers, especially overseas clients in countries such as Brazil and Germany which are threatening to replace U.S.-based services with those offered by local providers.
As Snowden's leaks has revealed, the NSA has found ways to penetrate the systems of these firms by accessing cables located outside their buildings, and companies are stepping up their efforts to strengthen their systems and make it harder for the NSA's engineers to hack into their systems.
Most recently, Google has released an end-to-end encryption tool for Chrome users that lets them send encrypted emails from their Gmail accounts to other email clients. Microsoft is also taking a similar step by providing 2,048-bit encryption for all its products, including its Hotmail and Outlook clients. Smith says users of Microsoft products will experience 100% encryption by the end of 2014. He also says that Microsoft has established transparency centers in foreign countries so that foreign government representatives can evaluate Microsoft's source codes and ensure that there are no "back doors" that the U.S. government can take advantage of to spy on foreign governments' activities.
A report released by international mobile carrier Vodafone also disclosed details about surveillance activities by governments outside the U.S., and said that six undisclosed countries have direct access to communications networks, allowing them to obtain data and metadata about private calls without the need to obtain a warrant.
In January, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and a number of other Internet firms reached a deal with the Obama administration that eliminated the government's gag order to reveal information about the number of government requests for customer information, as long as the companies published the numbers in increments of 250 or 1,000.
The government, however, is not happy about American technology companies tightening their security fences. Robert S. Litt of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warns that "sooner or later there will be some intelligence failure and people will wonder why the intelligence agencies were not able to protect the nation." The companies pointed the responsibility back at the government, which they say has compromised web security for all with its cyberspying activities.