Some of the world’s biggest technology companies are pushing for limits on online government snooping – but there’s a thorny problem at the heart of their demands.

Google, Facebook and Microsoft are part of the Reform Government Surveillance group which published an open letter calling for governments to “limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes”.

In plain language: spy agencies should not be able to hoover up of vast swathes of innocent citizens’ data, as revealed in a recent Channel 4 News report.


When Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA first emerged, the technology companies were angry, but for quite a specific reason: they knew the surveillance was going on, but were barred from speaking about it under secrecy laws.

Then came an article in the Washington Post which claimed the US Government’s National Security Agency was gathering data even as it passed between the companies’ computer servers. Suddenly the firms were faced with a whole new batch of surveillance about which they knew nothing.

That seems to have prompted the formation of the group. Their demands – for surveillance to be more targeted, and for better oversight – might seem sensible and achievable.

But there’s an obvious counter-argument for intelligence agencies and governments: in order to spy in a more targeted and less scatter-gun way, you need to know where to look. The technology companies are now – thanks to Snowden – encrypting more of their traffic, and to a higher standard.

Therefore, the spooks will argue, they need to hoover up even more traffic, because they won’t know which bits are important until they de-encrypt it.

Carrying the debate a step further: the tech companies could counter-argue that there’s no need for intelligence agencies to de-encrypt, because they could simply go to the tech firms direct, make their case, and demand the unencrypted data.

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