Which tech companies can you trust when it comes to protecting your privacy from government intrusion? Not Snapchat, not Amazon and not Comcast, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) fourth annual “Who Has Your Back” report, released last week.
The fact that these companies made the Bad Guys list isn’t much of a surprise. What is surprising though, is that Facebook, often maligned for playing very fast and loose with personal data, comes off looking very good, along with Google and Microsoft.
All three of those companies (and six others) received a perfect six stars in the report which gauges how hard companies fight to protect users’ privacy from government data requests. That’s not the same as refraining from vacuuming up your personal data to help sell ads.
Here are the six categories used to judge the companies: 1) requires a warrant for content; 2) tells users about government data requests; 3) publishes transparency reports; 4) publishes law enforcement guidelines; 5) fights for users’ privacy rights in courts; and 6) fights for users’ privacy rights in Congress.
“The sunlight brought about by a year’s worth of Snowden leaks appears to have prompted dozens of companies to improve their policies when it comes to giving user data to the government,” said EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman. “Our report charts objectively verifiable categories of how tech companies react when the government seeks user data, so users can make informed decisions about which companies they should trust with their information.”
The point about the Snowden leaks is very important. Whether you think the one-time NSA analyst is a traitor or a hero, it’s altogether clear that the revelations of a vast spying operation directed against Americans, as well as foreigners, changed the conversation about privacy in the United States. Not too long ago, Google was one of the very few, maybe the only, major tech company that routinely issued a transparency report detailing requests by the government for user data. Now a lot of companies do. (You can read much more about Snowden in a new book by Glenn Greenwald called “No Place to Hide.” You can also read my review of the book here.)
In 2013, the EFF awarded six stars to only one company: Sonic.net, a small ISP based in the San Francisco area. This year, Apple, Credo Mobile, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo (along with Sonic) all received six out of six stars.
If you look at the chart in the report, you see that the first two columns are really key: “Requires a warrant for content” and “Tells users about government data requests.” Neither AT&T nor Comcast pass muster in that category. Amazon does ask for a warrant, but does not tell users about data requests.
It’s good to see these companies finally grow some spine, but it’s worth noting that until foreign technology buyers started avoiding U.S. technology sellers because of fears that their products were not secure, Silicon Valley was a lot quieter about this.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.