updated 02:01 am EST, Wed December 18, 2013
Meeting originally to have discussed both NSA and healthcare reform
Contrary to many media reports, the gathering of tech executives called to a meeting with President Obama were invited to weigh in on the US' digital surveillance policies and programs, and the topic dominated the two-hour meeting while still touching on other topics, such as the government's Healthcare.gov website and general Internet topics. The tech CEOs and representatives urged the government to adopt stricter rules over various NSA-related programs.
President Obama's administration is also evaluating similar recommendations from an outside panel that suggests a curtailment of extra-legal and routine collection of all metadata on citizen's phone calls and Internet activity. A federal judge recently said that the practice "likely" contravened the fourth amendment of the Constitution.
The tech companies, which have maintained that they do not willingly partner with the government but are also hamstrung in what they can legally say about the still-classified but exposed NSA initiatives, reportedly expressed their displeasure at being associated with the program and portrayed as partners by leaked NSA slideshows. White House PR attempts to portray the meeting as just as much about the healthcare site did not live up to the actual events, which largely focused on security and the government's surveillance programs.
A number of the companies, including Google and Apple, have been vehement in their denials of explicit cooperation. They along with Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo have all filed suits or briefs against the NSA surveillance programs, originally set up by the Bush Administration but continued under Obama. Apple was among 10 companies in a coalition that sent an open letter to the administration clarifying its opposition to the programs, which were revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The President released a statement after the meeting, saying he "will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs." A joint statement from the tech companies expressed appreciation for "the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform," making clear where the emphasis of the closed-door meeting lay.
The tech companies are not calling for the dissolution of the programs as much as a requirement that they operate in a more legal and transparent manner, going back to the principle of requiring public court orders and warrants in order to begin authorized and supervised surveillance on persons of interest, instead of blanket collection of personal data for random sifting or keyword targeting using secret courts that rubber-stamp government requests and are unaccountable to any oversight other than controlled (and likely manipulated) classified briefings to select Congresspersons.
To its credit, the administration was aware of the discontent among the tech representatives -- which included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Google's Chairman Eric Schmidt along with executives from Microsoft, Facebook and others. It should also be noted that it was the administration itself -- once the existence of the NSA programs was revealed -- that worked with an external review panel to determine how the NSA and other intelligence agencies can be reformed while balancing national security concerns and what Congress would actually pass in the way of new law on the topic.
If nothing else, the panel is likely to recommend updating of existing laws, and quite possibly the reform or dismantling of some parts of the Patriot Act, written by the Bush administration and passed in a panic following the attacks of 9/11. Numerous parts of the law have not held up well to public scrutiny or sentiment, and the Snowden revelations were seen to further weaken public trust of the government's ability to regulate itself when it came to intelligence-gathering.
The panel is reportedly set to suggest that the NSA dismantle its phone metadata-gathering program and require it to use the conventional, public court system to seek permission for gathering such information on specific individuals. AT&T, one of the companies present at Tuesday's meeting and one of the few that provides both phone and electronic data services, is reported to be joining with the tech companies to push the government to allow it to publicly report on requests for information and to end programs that aggregate data on Americans and others without cause or any connection to suspicious activity through "sensible limitations" on collecting such information, seeing such programs -- correctly -- as fundamentally opposed to traditional democratic values.