A consumer organization concludes that when it comes to protecting customer information from government requests, Snapchat has a dismal record of failure, and Comcast, AT&T and Amazon aren’t far behind.
The report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation,”Who Has Your Back,” surveyed major Web companies from Adobe to Yahoo regarding their policies and practices regarding the personal information of customers.
The report examines how 26 of the top technology companies handle customer privacy in six categories.
Snapchat was found to be publishing law-enforcement guidelines but not requiring a warrant for delivering content, not telling users about government data requests, not publishing transparency reports and not fighting for users’ privacy rights in court or in Congress.
EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman credited Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents, with forcing changes.
“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,” Reitman said. “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.”
EFF’s report awards up to six gold stars for best practices in categories such as “require a warrant for content” and “publish transparency reports.” Last year, just two companies surveyed earned a full six stars – Sonic, a California ISP and Twitter.
This year, Apple, CREDO Mobile, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo all joined Sonic and Yahoo in receiving six full stars. Several others – LinkedIn, Pinterest, SpiderOak, Tumblr, Wickr and WordPress – only missed getting all six stars because they did not have to bring public court battles on behalf of their users, EFF said.
Significantly, most of the companies surveyed “have made a formal commitment to inform users when their data was sought,” adopting a practice pioneered by Twitter, the report said.
“Additionally, 20 of the companies EFF reviewed published transparency reports detailing government requests for user data, which is a striking increase from last year, when only seven companies in EFF’s report published them. This is now a new standard in the tech industry: corporations are actively and voluntarily working to shed light on the government attempts to access user data,” the report said.
“Snapchat joins AT&T and Comcast in failing to require a warrant for government access to the content of communications. That means the government can obtain extraordinarily sensitive information about your activities and communications without convincing a judge that there is probable cause to collect it,” said EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. “We urge these companies to change course and give their users this simple and needed protection from government overreach.”
EFF reported that the legal landscape for consumer privacy right now remains unsettled.
“Both Congress and President Obama are negotiating legislative reform that could curtail or even end bulk surveillance programs, while other congressional proposals would instead enshrine them into law. In multiple recent public opinion polls, the American people attest that they believe government surveillance has gone to far,” the EFF report said.
“In the face of unbounded surveillance, users of technology need to know which companies are willing to take a stand for the privacy of their users.”
“Amazon earns two stars in this year’s ‘Who Has Your Back’ report. Amazon should be commended for repeatedly fighting in court to protect the privacy of its users’ book purchases and for requiring a warrant before giving data to government. However, Amazon has not publicly adopted industry best practices in other categories, such as providing notice to users about government data requests.”
The report expressed disappointment that AT&T was “silent on the issue of mass surveillance.”
“In 2006, EFF sued AT&T for its cooperation and collaboration with the NSA spying program, which was confirmed by whistleblower documents. In 2008, Congress passed retroactive immunity for AT&T, which ended our case but not the telecom’s participation in mass surveillance.”
The report said Comcast has not joined other technology companies in publicly opposing mass surveillance.
EFF said Snapchat earned the lowest score, with only one star.
“It does not keep pace with industry competitors when it comes to transparency around data requests, giving users notice when their data is sought by the government, or requiring a warrant for user content. Snapchat also does not publicly oppose mass surveillance.”