Obama Faces Tech Executives Pressing for NSA Limits
President Barack Obama is meeting with a group of executives including Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s Tim Cook and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO)’s Marissa Mayer whose companies are pushing the U.S. to curb broad government spying on communications.
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.
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, which got under way about 10:45 a.m. Washington time, is being held 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 facing 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.
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 received on Dec. 13 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 set to attend the meeting, according to the White House, are: Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google Inc. (GOOG); Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. (FB); Dick Costolo, chief executive officer of Twitter Inc.; Brad Smith, general counsel at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT); and Erika Rottenberg, vice president and general counsel of LinkedIn Corp. (LNKD)
The companies also signed the Dec. 9 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.
The other companies represented at today’s White House meeting will be AT&T Inc. (T), Etsy Inc., Netflix Inc. (NFLX), Dropbox Inc., Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM), Zynga Inc. (ZNGA), Sherpa Global, and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)
The White House said the president also wants to discuss how the government can work with technology companies to bolster economic growth.
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