Tech Industry Not Pleased With Obama’s NSA “Reforms”

Major tech companies have not concealed their disdain for the National Security Administration’s intrusive data collection program. As in one example, the President met with executives on December 17th to discuss the problems. Instead of discussing the issue at hand, Obama was overwhelmed by demands that the administration reform the NSA’s surveillance practices. There was no mention of the federal web exchange in the joint statement released after the disastrous meeting — rather, the parties involved announced that they were pleased to share their “principles on government surveillance … and we urge [Obama] to move aggressively on reform.”

Fast forward about a month later, and President Obama announces some NSA reforms that will basically change nothing, as PFoL’s Loren Heal points out. But perhaps the segments of the private sector being tapped by the government for the express purpose of data collection found a silver lining?

Well, not really.

The second paragraph of Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-28 – released while the President made his NSA announcement — acknowledges the damage the NSA scandal has done to tech companies. Knowing that the government is gaining access to users’ private communications from highly-established internet services (via PRISM) doesn’t exactly inspire consumer confidence, especially when one considers these companies’ global presence. For much of the industry, the majority of their revenues come in from overseas. As Wired‘s Steven Levy wrote:

But the overseas customers of U.S. companies aren’t micro-analyzing the protections the NSA takes when it accesses customer data: [t]hey are incensed that the U.S. collects the data the first place.

Unfortunately for these companies’ overseas business, President Obama did not articulate enough specific changes to quell these fears. He stated that he would call for “the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas,” citing a limitation on how long the US keeps the collected information. However:

“The president’s speech was … insufficient to meet the real needs of our globally connected world and a free Internet,” said Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a group that represents Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other technology companies upset about the NSA’s broad surveillance of online communications.

Personally, I’m far more concerned with the rights and liberties of myself and my fellow Americans than people overseas when it comes to collecting intelligence — but someone living in a country that isn’t the US doesn’t stand alone as a justification for spying on him/her. It’s no surprise that the technology industry has a vested interest in making sure all their customers are confident that their private communications are safe.

And given how profitable the tech sector is for our nation, consider the economic interest in maintaining that confidence as well.

But, at the very least, one would presume that these companies were waiting for Obama to tell the world that they will be able to keep their American customers’ information to themselves when a warrant isn’t involved. And — of course — that was the major glaring omission in the new “reforms:”

Obama said very little about NSA programs that create or exploit “back doors” into private databases or transmission channels. The Snowden revelations included documents outlining a startling array of programs that use popular technology products as a means to stealthily collect information. … This outraged the tech world. The president’s review panel had a lot of suggestions on this matter, particularly to address allegations that the NSA had lobbied to weaken encryption standards or used secret software vulnerabilities to gather information — at the expense of security in general.

But the President didn’t take on that issue. The tech companies have been beefing up their security to fight the NSA’s incursions, and Obama gave no indication that they could relax on those efforts. The security teams at Google and Yahoo will continue to make it a top priority to fortify their defenses against government intrusion.

Now it’s not as if Silicon Valley got absolutely nothing from the administration, albeit it isn’t very much. Eight major companies released a joint statement after the event that intimated they were not wholly satisfied by the announced measures:

“Additional steps are needed on other important issues, so we’ll continue to work with the administration and Congress to keep the momentum going and advocate for reforms consistent with the principles we outlined in December,” said the statement from Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and AOL.

Of course there are members of the industries who were knowingly involved in the surveillance, including IBM. It’s no secret that the telecommunications industry was totally on board. Some of the very companies listed in the above quote, such as Microsoft, have come under scrutiny regarding government access to data — especially Google, who agreed to put NSA-developed code into their Android systems. NSA officials say that the code is a security measure to protect users’ data from hackers. Even if this is the case, it’s not a shocker that people are suspicious. Facebook has been forced to defend itself by trying to convince consumers that they only handed over data related to intelligence investigations. Many companies (including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo) have even been receiving funds from the NSA despite their claims otherwise.

National defense and technology have always gone hand in hand. And this is an appropriate relationship until it takes a step too far by looking inward and treating all citizens as automatic suspects — think of it like a panopticon (part 1 and part 2, written two months before Snowden spoke to Greenwald). It’s imperative to remember that the actual collection of data has not been halted. The administration is only redirecting where that data gets dumped. And when evaluating the tech sector’s protests against NSA surveillance, the complications in the previous paragraph cannot be dismissed.

As all current events do, the overall circumstances belie a deeper question. This time one has to wonder whether these companies are pushing for reforms merely as an appeal to regain consumers’ trust. All this could come down to saving face before continuing classified business as usual. Make no mistake: tech companies are railing against the NSA because it all comes down to money. Less confidence leads to fewer customers, which leads to lower profits.

Nonetheless these actions demonstrate the market’s power to spur positive change. “The customer is always right.”

But even if these companies have less than benevolent intentions, their influence may very well inspire more changes that are beneficial to our Fourth Amendment rights. And it’s that result that matters.