Stories related to US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about internet mass surveillance programmes by the US and the UK have dominated this year.
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The revelations have sent ripples through the technology industry and international political community, sparking unprecedented debate around online privacy, security and related issues.
Technology companies have introduced several measures to distance themselves from the spying programmes, including publishing data request reports and introducing advanced encryption.
The European Union has commissioned reports on privacy and called on the US for reforms, along with an alliance of the biggest technology firms.
Other top stories on privacy in the past year have included reports on Google’s efforts to satisfy European data protection authorities that its privacy policies do not violate European laws and growing calls for a revision of that policy.
Read our top 10 privacy stories of 2013 here:
Top technology firms have joined forces to call for urgent reforms of all internet surveillance programmes, such as Prism in the US, and Tempora in the UK. Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Yahoo have formed an alliance called Reform Government Surveillance group. The group says documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.
In November, the European Commission called on the US to provide guarantees to restore trust in the wake of revelations of mass internet surveillance by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In the past, trust has relied on the Safe Harbor Privacy Principles designed to ensure US companies respect EU citizens’ right to protection of personal data. But in the light of the Snowden revelations this year of spying on EU citizens, companies and leaders, the EC wants further guarantees and processes to rebuild trust.
Twitter has announced it is using a spin-off of the Diffie-Hellman method, first developed by GCHQ in the 1970s, to protect users' data from snooping by government intelligence agencies. Perfect forward secrecy (PFS) is now live across all platforms, Twitter said, which makes it “effectively impossible” to collect data on users without the company’s permission, according to experts. The move is part of a bid to make it more difficult to collect data on users without going through legal channels.
Yahoo is to encrypt all user data that moves between its datacentres by April 2014 in a bid to regain trust after allegations that the US government secretly accessed users’ data. The internet firm previously announced it plans to encrypt all email communications from January 2014 after allegations of US government agencies accessing email traffic. Yahoo is among several large technology companies trying to distance themselves from the Prism internet surveillance programme.
Google has expressed outrage while Yahoo has reiterated denials of complicity in response to reports that the NSA tapped into datacentre links. The documents suggest the NSA worked with UK intelligence agency GCHQ to copy large amounts of user data transmitted over the fibre optic link through an interception point outside the US.
Business is facing a new challenge in securing data in the wake of revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden, said Norbert Pohlmann, chairman of IT security organisation TeleTrust. “We now know that the US National Security Agency has made the whole security system weak by building in weaknesses that criminals can use,” he told the ISSE 2013 security conference in Brussels. Pohlmann said that, in light of Snowden's revelations, businesses need to find new ways to secure backdoors in hardware and software, and protect data.
Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has re-iterated warnings that the democratic nature of the internet is under threat from increased surveillance and censorship. A firm advocate of net neutrality, Berners-Lee has been a strong critic of internet surveillance by UK and US intelligence agencies, describing the decision to crack encryption methods as “appalling and foolish”. Berners-Lee has also been among the strongest opponents to proposed legislation in the UK and US aimed at censoring content and giving authorities the right to monitor electronic communications.
In September, Microsoft and Google announced they plan to sue the US government for the right to reveal more information about its official requests for user data collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa). Secret orders under the act have been used by the NSA and other US government agencies to gather data about foreign internet users. Microsoft and Google are among the top technology companies that have been trying to clarify their position on sharing data ever since they were linked to the NSA’s Prism internet surveillance programme.
Privacy campaigners have filed a legal challenge to internet surveillance programmes by the US National Security Agency and UK intelligence agency GCHQ. Papers filed by Privacy International call for an immediate suspension of the UK’s use of material from the NSA Prism programme. They also demand a temporary injunction to the UK’s Tempora programme, which allows GCHQ to tap into undersea cables that carry internet traffic in and out of the country.