By Barry Levine / CIO Today. Updated May 16, 2014.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is out with gold stars for the companies that it says "fight the hardest" to protect user data from government requests. This is the fourth year it has made the awards, and the number of companies that receive the full six gold stars has increased from two to nine.
The two that got the top designation last year were California Internet service provider Sonic and Twitter. Added to that list this year are Apple, Credo Mobile, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. EFF said that five more -- 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."
Other evaluated companies included Adobe, Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Foursquare, Internet Archive, Lookout, Microsoft, MySpace and Pinterest.
The Six Categories
The six categories, for which a gold star is awarded or not, are: requires a warrant before providing content; tells users about government data requests; publishes transparency reports; publishes law enforcement guidelines; fights for users' privacy rights in court; and fights for users' privacy right in Congress.
But many of the companies surveyed by EFF have been improving their practices relating to protecting user privacy. The foundation said most of the companies surveyed have made a formal commitment to tell users when the government went looking for their data, which provides information that users can employ to fight the requests by themselves. Also, 20 companies of the ones surveyed now publish transparency reports that detail government requests for user data, compared with only seven that did so last year.
One pioneer is Twitter, which battled back in 2010 for the right to tell users when the government sought information during the WikiLeaks investigation. But Snapchat, the popular messaging app, got only one star because it does not require a warrant if the government comes looking for the content of certain users' communications. AT&T and Comcast similarly do not require a warrant. A warrant, EFF noted, means that a judge at least has been convinced about probable cause for the government to seek the data.
'Commerce Operates on Trust'
EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman said in a statement that "the sunlight brought about by a year's worth of [Edward] Snowden leaks appears to have prompted dozens of companies to improve their policies when it comes to giving user data to the government." She added that the foundation's report "charts objectively verifiable categories of how tech companies react when the government seeks user data," which can help users make informed decisions "about which companies they should trust with their information."
Roger Kay, an analyst with industry research firm Endpoint Technologies Associates, said that "everything in commerce operates on trust."
In the old days, he told us, "when you went to the market to get some fish, you could at least see the fish." But now, he said, "everything has gone remote," so certification from an independent third party could matter to users in the marketplace.
He noted that EFF "has been sort of anti-establishment in the past," but that this new industry certification is helping the group "to become more establishment."