Tech firms say Obama’s proposals fall short of expectations

January 17, 2014

(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Technology and telecom firms said the reforms President Obama laid out in his speech were a good first step but fell short of their hopes to significantly change the government’s vast surveillance program.

Telecommunications firms said they were pleased about limits to the collection of bulk metadata, but said they have unanswered questions on details of reforms, particularly on changes to the phones records database. The database, Obama said, would be removed from government control to a third party. Phone companies don't want to have the responsibility of keeping the database, they said.


In a statement after the speech, the wireless industry’s biggest lobbying group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, stressed that it believes privacy and security “can be achieved without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”

Technology firms expressed disappointment that the president’s reforms did not go far enough to curb government surveillance. Silicon Valley firms have called for greater transparency on court order for consumer data. They have called for stronger limits to the government’s collection of data and decryption of Internet data held by commercial entities.

“We're disappointed he did not completely halt the collection and analysis of bulk metadata. We would have liked him to have followed the lead of his appointed review group and call for greater examination of the NSA’s subversion of encryption standards, and for changes to the ways in which the NSA can access Americans’ content without a warrant  (under Section 702 of FISA),” said Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook as members.

Tech firms have called for greater transparency in the NSA’s surveillance efforts. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook have complained of their inability to make public the number of data demands they receive by the secret FISA court, saying their legal obligation to keep those details secret has harmed their businesses.

“Overall, the strategy seems to be to leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree. We'd hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more. Without a meaningful change of course, the Internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity,” said Alex Fowler, head of public policy for Mozilla, a nonprofit software association that created the Firefox browser.

He said high-tech firms were hoping for legislative reforms to limit the NSA’s capabilities and an end to alleged government programs of unauthorized collection and decryption of data held by commercial entities.

“The speech also didn’t raise one of the most important issues determining the future of government surveillance and privacy: the priorities of the next director of the NSA. If a culture of unlimited data gathering above all else persists, legal reforms and improved technological protections will be watered down over time and will never be enough to restore trust to the Internet,” Fowler said.

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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Brian Fung · January 17, 2014