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Why Major Tech Companies Are Getting Much Better About Privacy

3 minute read

Whatever you think of Edward Snowden and his revelations about the National Security Agency’s alleged monitoring of the Internet, one thing is beyond debate: His disclosures have ignited a global conversation about privacy in the online age. And a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests that he spurred the tech industry to take newly aggressive measures to defend their users against inappropriate government intrusions.

“Who Has Your Back?” rates 26 U.S.-based tech companies on six factors:

  • Whether they require a warrant before they’ll release user content;
  • Whether they inform users of government data requests;
  • Whether they publish transparency reports;
  • Whether they publish law enforcement guidelines;
  • Whether they fight for users’ privacy rights in court;
  • Whether they fight for users’ privacy rights before Congress.
  • A company which the EFF concluded did all of the above would get a six-star rating. Eight companies achieved that, including giants such as Apple. Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter. They outnumbered the laggards, such as Amazon and AT&T (two stars apiece) and Snapchat (one star).

    The EFF has been publishing this report since 2011, and this is the first year that reading it might leave you feeling guardedly upbeat rather than depressed. Last year, for instance, regional ISP Sonic.net and Twitter were the only companies to get perfect six-star ratings, and Apple and Yahoo only got one star apiece. In 2012, the report involved a simpler rating, and only Sonic.net got all four stars. And in 2011, no company got four stars and only Google managed not to look dismal.

    The EFF’s analysis of its data notes the turnaround and credits Snowden for nudging the industry in the right direction:

    This year, we saw major improvements in industry standards for informing users about government data requests, publishing transparency reports, and fighting for the user in Congress. For the first time in our four years of Who Has Your Back reports, every company we reviewed earned credit in at least one category. This is a significant improvement over our original report in 2011, when neither Comcast, Myspace, Skype, nor Verizon received any stars.

    These changes in policy were likely a reaction to the releases of the last year, which repeatedly pointed to a close relationship between tech companies and the National Security Agency. Tech companies have had to work to regain the trust of users concerned that the US government was accessing data they stored in the cloud. This seems to be one of the legacies of the Snowden disclosures: the new transparency around mass surveillance has prompted significant policy reforms by major tech companies.

    There’s still plenty of fodder for concern in the report. Why, for instance, do all the old-school communications behemoths on it–AT&T, Comcast and Verizon–look so much worse than many younger companies? And this particular study covers only protection from governmental snooping; you can applaud Google and Facebook for their high scores here while still having questions about what they’re doing with your data for purposes such as targeting advertising.

    Still, when Snowden blew his whistle, numerous tech executives expressed outrage over what he revealed and said they’d put new measures in place to safeguard their customers. It’s good to get this confirmation from the hard-nosed privacy advocates at the EFF that so many of them lived up to their word–and I’m already curious what next year’s report will look like.

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