The spy law that Big Tech wants to limit

Chris Strohm, Emily Birnbaum, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

Top tech companies are mounting a push to limit how US intelligence agencies collect and view texts, emails and other information about their users, especially American citizens.

The companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Meta Platforms Inc. and Apple Inc., want Congress to limit Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as they work to renew the law before it expires at the end of the year, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

There is a growing bipartisan consensus in Congress to not only renew the law but to make changes in response to a series of reports and internal audits documenting abuses. That’s left the tech industry optimistic that broader reforms will get through Congress this time, according to two lobbyists who asked not to be identified relaying internal discussions.

The law, passed by Congress in 2008 in response to revelations of warrantless spying on US citizens by the Bush administration, granted sweeping powers that have been criticized over the years for different reasons. Civil liberties groups think more privacy protections are needed. Former President Donald Trump and his allies claim that spying powers enable intelligence agencies to conspire against conservatives.

“Reforms are needed to ensure dragnet surveillance programs operate within constitutional limits and safeguard American users’ rights, through appropriate transparency, oversight and accountability,” said Matt Schruers, president of the tech trade group Computer & Communications Industry Association, which counts Apple, Google, Meta and Inc. among its members.

Intelligence agencies say Section 702 is an essential tool that has generated critical information on the espionage and hacking activities of countries such as China and contributed to the successful drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last year.


Under Section 702, the agencies can compel companies without a warrant to turn over communications, phone records and other data for national security investigations that target non-US citizens living outside the country, even if the communications of American citizens are involved. The information is kept in a database that analysts can access for authorized investigations that have a foreign intelligence purpose.

Top US officials acknowledge there have been problems – or so-called “compliance incidents” – regarding how authorities under Section 702 have been used. But they say significant efforts and reforms have been made to address the issues.

Key lawmakers and national security officials from President Joe Biden’s administration have begun talking about what changes might be possible.

Social media companies and technology firms have an economic incentive to seek restraints on what the government can force them to do, as their relationship with US agencies was criticized after former government contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed how immense the global spying apparatus had become during the Obama administration.


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