NSA letter

A beautiful website and a stake in the ground. That’s what we got last night from the US’s tech giants in an attempt to ratchet up pressure on the government to rein in the surveillance state. Today, there were full-page newspaper ads, too, with Google, LinkedIn, AOL, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo as the signatories.

It should only be considered a very small step in the right direction – a public relations exercise, even. But it should also be acknowledged as a good step.

In urging the government to reform current surveillance laws and practices, the tech companies laid out five principles relating to improved oversight, increased transparency, limiting the government’s authority to collect personal data, respecting data traffic between nations, and cooperation between governments to avoid conflicts across jurisdictions.

To me, the most important part of the joint effort was in the final paragraph of the consortium’s open letter.

We urge the US to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.

Proportionate to the risks.

That is the key. Law, transparency, and oversight are all important, but to address the root of the problem, you have to focus on the question: “Is this all worth it?” Does the ongoing threat of terrorism, which kills one in 20 million Americans, justify the wholesale intrusion of personal privacy? Does the horror of 9/11, an outlier event, warrant Total Surveillance? Are US claims to liberty worth compromising in the name of catching bad guys?

These are complicated but necessary questions, and answering them is vital to America’s idea of freedom and the government’s respect for its citizens. They are also questions that tech companies, guardians of so much of our data, must confront, not least because they profit from sharing our data.

However, if these companies – well-moneyed and lobbied-up – can compel the government to calibrate a response to the threat of terrorism that is more “proportionate to the risks” than the status quo, they will be doing the world a favor. This is one case in which an engineering-driven approach to risk-management would be apt.

I’d much rather see logic and algorithms applied to data in order to determine the best response to the threat of terrorism than to give it over to politicians who shout “9/11!” and expect us to cease all critical thinking, or to agencies that disseminate talking points for their employees to use with their own families.

To get us to that place, the tech companies need to do more than produce slick websites and pay for ads. They must make surveillance their top lobbying priority, and send a loud, forceful, and expensive message to Washington that the status quo cannot stand. If anyone can afford the political and financial complex to stand up to the military industrial complex, it’s the tech giants.

The website and the open letter are an encouraging early indication that they are prepared to do so. But these minor actions will mean nothing if they’re not followed up with aggressive political pressure.