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Franken Promotes Surveillance Bill At Hill Hearing

Some Democratic legislators and industry players, notably Google, were in agreement Wednesday that the U.S. government needs to reestablish the trust of the public and international community following the recent revelations about data collection in the name of national security and law enforcement.

At a hearing in the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, the Surveillance Transparency Act, introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R- Nev.), was billed by its supporters as a good first step.

At issue, said Google and others, was not only loss of privacy, but the financial hit from a public grown wary of the security — or more to the point, insecurity — of cloud storage.

They argued that the bill's provisions requiring a more detailed accounting of who and how many were being tracked than the government was so far willing to offer up was crucial to regaining — or establishing — public trust.

Sen. Franken said transparency about what the National Security Agency was doing was needed so the public could decide whether or not that was appropriate. That was seconded by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a bill co-sponsor, who said "what you don't know can hurt you." He said the bill would provide the kind of transparency that can clear up misinformation and mistrust that lessens our credibility at home and abroad.

Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security matters, for Google, suggested that some of that mistrust was playing into efforts to balkanize the Internet (something the Obama Administration is definitely opposed to). At home, he said, that mistrust was translating into people nervous about using cloud services and not taking advantage of all they had to offer, which he called a "terrible result."

Ranking member Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) raised some of his own concerns about the impact of the bill, asking administration witness Robert Litt, general counsel in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, to outline the Administration problems with the legislation.

Litt said that the aggregate numbers the government was willing to release, and allow companies to publicize was the right balance between privacy and security. He said that providing more detailed information would be giving too much info to our adversaries, for example to know what services to avoid due to the number of government info requests.

Kevin Bankston, director of the free expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology (which comprises computer companies including Google), said the aggregate numbers the government was willing to release were wholly insufficient, a sort of "fuzzying and lumping" of info the inspection of which he likened to a doctor trying to diagnose a patient's illness from their shadow.

One of the bill's provisions is to require the government to come up with an approximate figure of how many U.S. citizens have been surveilled — since that surveillance is supposed to be targeted at foreign, not domestic, communications. Litt said that would be a difficult, if not impossible task requiring resources better put to other uses and resulting in only approximations. He also said it would require even more intrusive inspection of info to try and make that call.

Sen. Franken suggested that the bill was urgently necessary. He said the Obama administration had taken "good steps in good faith," that that those voluntary measures were too little and not permanent.

Among the things that bill would do would be to lift the gag order so telecoms, ISPS and Web sites could tell the public what info was being gathered.

The government argues that the number is infinitesimal, and bill backers say that is all the more reason to publicize them so the public can have more confidence in using those services. Franken pointed out that many think that Internet companies are giving up more info than they are, so releasing figures could allay some of those concerns.

Sen. Heller said that he thought bulk data collection should end, but that at the very least there should be more transparency about what was being collected.