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The nation’s top tech companies are asking Congress to reform a key NSA surveillance program

Bob Goodlatte (C) attends an enrollment ceremony in the Capitol's Rayburn Room on July 14, 2016.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Bob Goodlatte (C) attends an enrollment ceremony in the Capitol's Rayburn Room on July 14, 2016.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft and a host of tech companies asked Congress on Friday to reform a government surveillance program that allows the National Security Agency to collect emails and other digital communications of foreigners outside the United States.

The requests came in the form of a letter to Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia lawmaker who's overseeing the debate in the House of Representatives to reauthorize a program, known as Section 702, which will expire at the end of the year without action by Capitol Hill.

In their note, the tech companies asked lawmakers for a number of changes to the law particularly to ensure that Americans' data isn't swept up in the fray. Meanwhile, they endorsed the need for new transparency measures, including the ability to share with their customers more information about the government surveillance requests they receive.

Signing the note are companies like Airbnb, Amazon, Cisco, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Lyft, Microsoft and Uber.

Absent, however, is Apple, which previously has joined with its tech counterparts in pushing for limits in government surveillance programs. A spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

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Section 702 is one of a number of U.S. surveillance authorities that had been the subject of great scrutiny and debate in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's surveillance leaks. The disclosures have also caused years of heartburn for Silicon Valley, which has faced an onslaught of criticism from international customers who feel the tech industry is too close to the U.S. government. Many top tech companies even banded together in a lobbying group that pushed for surveillance reforms in 2013.

As the fight over the NSA's powers returns to Congress, however, the Trump administration has urged lawmakers to keep Section 702 in its exact, current form.

Earlier this month, the NSA on its own terminated a piece of its program that essentially allowed the agency to collect Americans' emails and texts if those communications contained key words related to foreigners that already are targeted for government surveillance.

To that end, the tech companies writing Congress today said Congress should formally outlaw that practice, known as "about" collection, as part of its new legislation, to ensure it can't come back.

Otherwise, the government's Section 702 program isn't supposed to target Americans. But their communications still are lapped up in the bunch, sometimes incidentally, including cases in which an American is communicating directly with a non-U.S. person who is the subject of NSA scrutiny. Despite calls from the likes of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the agency has never disclosed the total number of Americans affected by such a program.

In response, the tech industry asked Congress to put in place "judicial oversight for government queries" for U.S. citizens' data. And they asked House lawmakers to rethink other portions of the law to "reduce the likelihood of collecting information about non-U.S. persons who are not suspected of wrongdoing."

By Tony Romm, Recode.net.

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