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National Editorials & Columns

Silicon Valley must push back on NSA to protect privacy rights

The more we learn about the National Security Agency’s misuse of the Internet as a massive surveillance tool, the more urgent it becomes for Silicon Valley to push back to protect privacy rights.

Lost in the furor over the government shutdown, NSA officials made some shocking revelations last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee: They have the ability to track individual Americans’ cellphone locations. NSA Chief Gen. Keith Alexander also admitted there had been 12 known cases of abuse of this power by agency employees, who had spied on people for personal reasons.

Kudos to companies such as Google and Yahoo that are pushing back on the NSA’s intrusions. But the entire valley should be uniting to salvage consumer trust. It is a business issue, but pursuing it can benefit all of society.

The right to privacy is a basic freedom that is every bit as compelling as the need to protect Americans against the threat of a terrorist attack.

Also on Wednesday, the Department of Justice issued a discouraging formal response to Google and Yahoo’s request that the NSA let them publicly clarify the tech industry’s role in surveillance, as well as the extent to which the NSA has access to users’ private information.

The Department of Justice said this knowledge “would be invaluable to our adversaries, who could thereby derive a clear picture of where the government’s surveillance efforts are directed and how its surveillance activities change over time.”

In other words: Trust us. But it has become all too clear in recent months that the NSA cannot be trusted. It has exceeded the authority people believed it had. Through hacking, it has given itself free range to track Internet users’ email, phone calls and location at any given moment. Americans increasingly resent this, but that’s nothing compared to the outrage throughout Europe as the NSA declares that it considers foreigners’ information free game.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is pushing legislation that would make it illegal for the NSA to collect the records of all U.S. phone calls. Leahy’s bill is drawing bipartisan support, but California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is opposed, arguing that the NSA’s work is essential to national security. She promises to offer alternative legislation that will preserve the NSA’s ability to collect data while providing transparency into its operations.

Being from the Bay Area, Feinstein should realize that consumer trust in the tech industry and in specific Silicon Valley companies is at stake.

The NSA must not be allowed to go on fishing expeditions through Internet users’ information without showing cause. The less secure people believe their information is, the more they will limit their use of online commerce over time and a major economic engine for this country will be at risk.

San Jose Mercury News

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