Obama Meets Tech Execs Pushing to Limit Surveillance

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Tuesday, 17 Dec 2013 02:55 PM

 

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President Barack Obama met with a group of technology executives including Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer as the administration is under pressure to curb broad government spying on communications.

Heading into the White House meeting, the executives intended to press Obama to act on the changes to surveillance policies proposed in a letter sent to the president and lawmakers last week, according to a representative of one of the companies, who asked not to be identified because the meeting plans aren’t public.

Neither the White House nor the companies released statements immediately following the closed-door discussion in the Roosevelt Room. Cook described the meeting as “great” as he left the White House grounds afterward. He didn’t comment further.

Apple and Yahoo were among the companies that signed the letter, which said the U.S. should take the lead in changing government surveillance practices after revelations that the National Security Agency gained access to phone and Internet data networks to conduct spying.

The companies asked in the letter that the U.S. “ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”

The meeting was convened as the NSA’s sweep of Internet and telephone data is coming under increased scrutiny from Congress and the courts, and as Obama is weighing new limits on such surveillance. Technology companies are dealing with the loss of billions of dollars in overseas business, stricter regulations and erosion of consumer trust as a result of revelations about the NSA’s surveillance.

A federal judge yesterday ruled the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata is probably illegal, allowing a lawsuit claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution to proceed. It marked the first time a district court ruled on the program.

The White House initially sought out the executives to discuss progress in fixing the health-care website and government information-technology stumbles, according to a person familiar with the invitation, who asked for anonymity to discuss private communications. The company leaders didn’t agree to the meeting, which was arranged in the past few days, until the White House included the NSA surveillance on the agenda, the person said.

“For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure -- deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks, and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope,” the companies said in their Dec. 9 letter.

Obama has defended the NSA’s work as necessary to prevent another terrorist attack, while also saying he will propose some limits to guard against unwarranted snooping in Americans’ private affairs.

Documents leaked by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA collects bulk phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, on billions of people worldwide, as well as data moving across the Internet.

The documents also show that the agency gained access to the customer accounts of technology companies, circumvented encryption, and tapped fiber-optic cables as part of its surveillance programs, according to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Guardian newspapers.

The president on Dec. 13 received a classified report from an advisory committee that recommended the government continue collecting bulk records on every U.S. phone call with new restrictions to protect privacy, according to an administration official familiar with the report.

The panel also suggested the imposition of stricter standards before allowing the government to search the data, which it said should be retained by telecommunications companies or a third-party organization instead of the NSA.

Also at the meeting, according to the White House, were: Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google Inc.; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc.; Dick Costolo, chief executive officer of Twitter Inc.; Brad Smith, general counsel at Microsoft Corp.; and Erika Rottenberg, vice president and general counsel of LinkedIn Corp.

The companies also signed the statement on curbing government surveillance.

“This summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide,” the companies wrote in their statement.

“Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users,” Mayer said in the joint statement. “And it is time for the U.S. government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world.”

In a Dec. 5 interview with MSNBC, Obama said will propose “some self-restraint on the NSA and to initiate some reforms to give people more confidence.” He didn’t give specifics.

Others who met with Obama include Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy Inc.; Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix Inc.; Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox Inc.; Burke Norton, chief legal officer of Salesforce.com Inc.; Mark Pincus, chairman of Zynga Inc.; Shervin Pishevar, co-CEO of Sherpa Global; Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast Corp. and Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T Inc, according to a list provided by the White House.

The White House said the president also had on his agenda a discussion about how the government can work with technology companies to bolster economic growth.

© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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