SAN FRANCISCO — Privacy advocates had some unsolicited advice for the major technology companies demanding that the U.S. government stop collecting information on private citizens: Practice what you preach.
"These are the biggest bunch of digital hypocrites you can imagine," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer privacy advocacy group. "Most of the companies on that list are engaging in the same kind of personal data collection" as the National Security Agency.
In the aftermath of revelations that the NSA tapped into company databases, eight tech firms launched a campaign Monday calling for sweeping changes in the way the U.S. government collects information on citizens.
The campaign included splashy ads in major newspapers and a new website called Reform Government Surveillance. The group also sent an open letter to President Obama and Congress seeking an overhaul in the government's snooping policies.
"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 companies say in the letter. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for change."
Even as privacy advocates said they shared those sentiments, they also noted that they have been calling on many of these same companies to offer similar safeguards against their own use of the treasure trove of personal information they collect on users.
"When we think of privacy protection, we think not only about the circumstances involving government access, but also how companies collect and use this information," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "Companies put their customers at risk by collecting so much data. We'd like to see a comprehensive approach to privacy reform."
Rotenberg and others point out that tracking of users' online behavior is crucial to many of the companies calling for reform. Amassing such data, which drive advertising and e-commerce revenue, has in turn created targets for the governments to gain access to such information.
Many of these companies were also stung by subsequent revelations in documents released by former defense contractor Edward Snowden that the government was somehow gaining access to such information. That has led to some governments outside the U.S. to issue calls for their own citizens and businesses to use other Internet services that are not based in the U.S., and not subject to such data collection efforts.
That has left many tech companies worried that customers might defect or be less willing to share their information if they think the government is snooping on them.
"People won't use technology they don't trust," Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."
In a blog post on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website, senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl and activism director Rainey Reitman expressed disappointment that wireless carriers did not appear to be part of the effort.
"Notably absent from the coalition are telecom companies, like Verizon and AT&T," they wrote. "These companies have long been considered the weak link when it comes to government access request. AT&T just announced that it would not respond to shareholder requests to be transparent about its relationship with the NSA."
Still, even amid the criticism, privacy advocates were hopeful that the new campaign would prove to be more than just a public relations or marketing effort. The Electronic Frontier Foundation applauded previously announced plans by several of the companies to implement greater encryption of customer data that would make government collection efforts more difficult.
And they also were optimistic that the new campaign by the companies could help boost the chances of several pieces of privacy legislation pending in Congress.
"The short answer is that we are very pleased that the major tech companies are entering the fray over privacy and national security," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've been through many votes and legal expansions in the 12 years since 9/11, and the major companies have always sat on the sidelines. They add a new and unique voice and will only improve our chances of getting real spying reform passed in the coming year."