NSA Surveillance Rules Will Keep Ban on Commercial Spying

Changes in how the National Security Agency collects and stores information will keep in place prohibitions that prevent American companies from getting that data for competitive advantage, a member of a White House advisory panel said today.

NSA procedures make clear that commercial espionage isn’t allowed, said Peter Swire, one of five members on a panel that reviewed the NSA’s handling of phone and e-mail records. The policy outlined by President Barack Obama last week “conforms with previous practice” and spells out the U.S. approach, Swire told reporters in Brussels, where he was scheduled to speak at a conference.

“Surveillance will continue on companies that may be evading sanctions or breaking other criminal laws,” said Swire, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was an adviser on privacy matters during President Bill Clinton’s administration and served on Obama’s National Economic Council.

Revelations about sweeping NSA collection of communications and data by fugitive former government contractor Edward Snowden sparked an international backlash and raised concerns among companies about the security of their electronic systems. As part of the administration response, Obama last week issued a directive saying that the U.S. doesn’t use the intercepted data to provide economic advantage to companies.

No Advantage

“This is not a free zone for companies to violate the law or avoid international obligations,” Swire said. “The clear statement is that the NSA will not be used as an industrial espionage tool for American business. American companies will not be getting a commercial information for their advantage.”

Swire reiterated the Obama administration’s pledge that it won’t spy on foreign leaders unless necessary. Disclosures that the NSA had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone and spied on and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. chilled relations between the U.S. and those nations.

Swire offered on example of when monitoring might be acceptable: “If Germany were making an economic deal for a gas pipeline in a way that would cause large international difficulties, that might be a reason to try to prevent a bad outcome,” Swire said, noting that “this is me speculating.”

Swire defended the so-called safe harbor agreement that has allowed U.S. technology companies like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. to access personal data on European Union citizens, which recently has been criticized by the European Commission because the companies may be required to turn over the data to U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Safe harbor has also created widespread institutional protections for data about Europeans when it goes overseas,” Swire said. “I think repealing safe harbor would not only interrupt data flows but would undermine compliance regimes that exist in the safe harbor companies.”

Swire was part of the five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies that delivered its report on U.S. surveillance programs to Obama last month. The panel concluded the U.S. data collection program is legal, while proposing changes intended to enhance privacy and public confidence.

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