By the Blouin News Technology staff

New U.S. transparency rule: real change or a gag?

by in Personal Tech.

Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA.Win McNamee/Getty Images

The U.S. government issued an overall relaxation of the rules surrounding what internet companies are allowed to divulge to users in the way of government data requests — a change that is seen by some as a progressive baby step towards transparency, and as a worthless political bandaid by others.

Indeed, it has accomplished enough to cause web giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo to drop their lawsuits against the government as they seek the rights to be more transparent about data requests with their users. A spokesperson for the five groups — LinkedIn as the fifth — told the Financial Times:

We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a very positive step, we’ll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we believe are needed.

Despite these positive remarks, the new ruling has been decried by many for its tight provisions that regulate which companies can disclose requests (no start-ups for two years after they establish) and the numbers of disclosures and the types of information disclosed. The New York Times quoted security advocates who say that this step falls short of several proposals that are before Congress right now, and that the restrictions in the new rules prevent any useful qualities of the data that’s being collected to be disclosed. 

There are a couple more notches against the timing and content of the Justice Department’s ruling: The announcement from the Obama administration comes a week and a half after the President’s unassuring speech describing a plan for future surveillance tactics that left Americans feeling as though nothing will change. Ironic too, as the Attorney General mentioned that these new disclosure rules have been issued as a result of Obama’s speech.

Additionally, the news of the relaxation of disclosure rules came out just as the news that that NSA and the U.K.’s intel group GCHQ routinely gather personal information about smartphone users through “leaky” mobile applications and games as popular as Angry Birds. That latest leak described just how personal the information collected is: not just numbers, but sexual orientations and political leanings.

Nevertheless, should even a tiny measure of growth towards transparency be praised? Jean Camp, Director of the Security Informatics Program at Indiana University and Blouin Creative Leadership Summit delegate, says we need a different direction altogether. Camp states that the infrastructure of the internet itself needs an overhaul rather than some political bandaids that give the impression of security. She writes:

We need to secure the internet itself. At the very least, stop investing hundreds of millions in ensuring it remains systematically vulnerable. None of the problems of identity theft, information leakage, virtual property theft, and bullies hacking accounts to steal photos will be solved with superior technology alone. But none of these problems can be solved with chronically broken security, technologies that are damaged as a matter of policy.

The DoJ’s ruling appears to be more of an appeasement than anything else — one that will likely be in the backs of many minds as Obama delivers the State of the Union address tonight.