Big tech companies are saying no more to government data collection. Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have stated that they plan to revise their privacy policies to include increased protections for user data. These influential tech companies plan to defy government orders and inform users when their data is being collected.
After the White House failed to address many of the concerns posed by tech companies during special meetings earlier this year, several tech giants decided to take matters into their own hands. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook recently announced that they will now alert users of government requests to seize user data for criminal investigations unless there is a court gag order in effect.
Yahoo, Twitter and other tech companies have already taken similar steps against what tech companies and many Americans view as the government's unchecked power to invade users' privacy without their knowledge. The idea is to make it harder for the government to collect data indiscriminately from both suspected criminals and innocent citizens.
"It serves to chill the unbridled, cost-free collection of data," said Albert Gidari Jr., a partner at Perkins Coie and representative of many technology companies. "And I think that's a good thing."
Naturally, law enforcement and government agencies disagree with these new policies, claiming that it will make it harder to catch criminals and give them time to destroy evidence.
"These risks of endangering life, risking destruction of evidence, or allowing suspects to flee or intimidate witnesses are not merely hypothetical, but unfortunately routine," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.
"It's sort of a double whammy that makes law enforcement's job harder," said Jason M. Weinstein, former deputy assistant attorney general of the criminal division of the Justice Department, now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson. "It has the potential to significantly impair investigations."
The tech companies insist that they are not protecting criminals, but rather ordinary people. The goal is to make the government think twice before collecting data and to make sure that they have a valid reason to do so.
"The intent is to make sure it's not a rubber stamp," said Dane Jasper, chief executive of Sonic.net, an Internet and phone provider in California whose notification policy has won a star from EFF. "That way we're not releasing customer information without due process."
Although Google already notifies users of government data requests, it also updated its policy to clarify exactly when the company won't alert users to the government's actions.
"We notify users about legal demands when appropriate, unless prohibited by law or court order," Google said in a statement.
Apple also updated its policies to ensure the security of user data.
"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," company spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said.
Microsoft and Facebook are working on similar alterations to their respective privacy policies and more companies are sure to follow their example. For better or for worse, the fight over data collection has only just begun.