Obama Meets Tech Executives Pressing for NSA Limits

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 U.S. 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.

None of the company officials made statements afterward. Cook described the meeting as “great” as he left the White House grounds, without making further comment.

The White House, in a statement, said the meeting “was an opportunity for the president to hear from CEOs directly as we near completion of our review of signals intelligence programs.”

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.”

Increased Scrutiny

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 that 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.

In its statement on today’s meeting, the administration sought to emphasize a portion of the discussion about improvements to the healthcare.gov website and how the federal government deals with information technology.

Company Concern

The top concern of the company leaders was the NSA surveillance and they didn’t agree to the meeting, which was arranged in the past few days, until the White House included that on the agenda, according to a person familiar with the invitation who asked for anonymity to discuss private communications.

“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 agency collects bulk phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, on billions of people worldwide, as well as data moving across the Internet.

Tapped Cables

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.

At Meeting

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.

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