Today marks the one-year anniversary of the revelations about the extent of government surveillance on the Internet. Here at AOL, we look at this anniversary through the lens of our most important asset – our users. We have worked hard to preserve our users' privacy and to aggressively protect them from unnecessary demands for surveillance, and have joined together with other Internet companies to fight for meaningful reform. Together, we've accomplished a lot, but there's more work to be done. We have asked for a number of reforms regarding government surveillance, including the creation of a public advocate to protect the privacy interests of those under surveillance, and we're committed to the fulfillment of those reforms.
AOL has been, and continues to be, dedicated to the idea that our users should have as much information as possible about the demands AOL receives for user data from the government and law enforcement. We have, together with other Internet and technology companies, been actively working with Congress and the Administration on meaningful reform for government surveillance programs, and are pleased that there has been significant process on this issue, which is critically important for our industry. The principles we announced with other technology companies in December 2013 (www.reformgovernmentsurveillance.com
) helped to shape the ongoing public debate about security, transparency, and government surveillance.
It is essential that we reform our surveillance programs. While we have made important strides in this effort with the passage of the USA Freedom Act in the House, we must ensure that any legislation considered by the Senate promotes transparency, ends the bulk collection of Internet metadata, and improves oversight and accountability of government surveillance programs. In addition, we believe that the creation of a Public Advocate for Privacy will help restore user trust in the Internet, in the government, and with our companies.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) approves requests by the US Government to conduct electronic surveillance and physical searches of individuals. Since 1979, the Government has made over thirty-five thousand applications to the FISC; of those requests, only a small fraction have been denied or modified.
Because FISC proceedings are confidential, it is impossible to determine the viability of those requests. Our country has a long established reliance on an adversarial system to ensure that a balance is struck between competing interests. In the case of government surveillance requests, we must balance privacy with national security. We recognize and respect the Government's important obligation to keep our country and its citizens secure, but believe that this goal can be achieved while preserving the time-tested principle of the adversarial system by creating a Public Advocate.
Several of the recent legislative initiatives in Congress include the creation of a Public Advocate for Privacy who would defend the legal interests of individuals subject to surveillance requests. The USA Freedom Act adopts a Public Advocate that merely provides input as an amicus only when (and to the extent) requested by the FISC. Under the more robust proposals, the Public Advocate would monitor the FISC docket and affirmatively litigate legitimate privacy interests under the Fourth Amendment and other laws, as part of the confidential FISC proceedings, unknown to those under surveillance.
To further the public discussion of this important issue, AOL asked our outside legal experts at Covington & Burling to look at this question and provide an analysis of the constitutional issues raised by the CRS. Their paper can be found here
. It concludes that there is no constitutional barrier to a robust Public Advocate that can litigate on behalf of individuals subject to surveillance requests. We believe this conclusion supports the already strong policy arguments in favor of a strong Public Advocate, and that our users and their privacy rights would be well served by such an office. AOL already vigorously contests on behalf of our users any demands we believe are ambiguous or legally defective, and we believe that the more robust Public Advocate proposal in the surveillance reform legislation currently being considered by Congress will be an additional step toward protecting our users' privacy and security.
The statistics referenced in this article are drawn from the Electronic Privacy Information Center. See Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court Orders 1979-2014
, Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. (last updated May 1, 2014), http://epic.org/privacy/wiretap/stats/fisa_stats.html.