Apple Inc. (AAPL:US), Google Inc. (GOOG:US) and other technology companies are gearing up to bring their fight over U.S. surveillance to Congress after President Barack Obama offered no specific proposals on their central request: to tell customers more about what the government is doing.
The coalition of companies, which has pressed the White House to limit the National Security Agency’s sweeping global surveillance programs, plans to ramp up lobbying members of Congress next week, according to people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren’t public. The president, in his remarks, put the onus of revamping intelligence gathering and storage of data onto the shoulders of Congress, these people said.
Obama yesterday laid out new actions to deal with the uproar set off by disclosures last year of phone and Web spying by the NSA. The president said he would require judicial review of requests to query phone call databases and ordered Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a way to take storage of that data out of the government’s hands. The technology companies, which have asked to be able to disclose what the NSA asks for to the public, were promised more transparency though no specifics on what kind or when.
“Crucial details remain to be addressed on these issues, and 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,” the technology companies said in a joint statement yesterday.
The group, known as Reform Government Surveillance, also includes Facebook Inc. (FB:US), AOL Inc., LinkedIn Corp. (LNKD:US), Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. Spokespeople at the companies either didn’t return requests for comment or declined to comment beyond the statement.
The technology companies wanted Obama to let them disclose more about government orders to provide records of customers’ e-mails and Internet use, while the telephone providers lobbied to prevent themselves from being forced to store years of calling data for the NSA’s use.
Since revelations of the NSA spying programs last year, the technology companies have fought the tarnish of the agency’s use of the consumer data that they collect.
Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and Google were among the companies that signed a Dec. 9 letter to Obama and members of Congress, saying the U.S. should take the lead in changing government surveillance practices. On Dec. 17, 15 technology executives including Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer met at the White House to press the president on curbing the surveillance programs.
The scandal’s impact may be costly to companies and to the U.S. economy. The domestic and international backlash could cost the U.S. economy $22 billion to $35 billion over the next three years, said Daniel Castro, an analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The stakes involved magnified technology companies’ disappointment at the lack of detail from the president yesterday. Browser maker Mozilla said in a statement that Obama’s strategy appears to be to “leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree. We’d hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more.”
The statement, from Mozilla’s global privacy and policy leader Alex Fowler and senior policy engineer Chris Riley, said Obama had failed to address “the most glaring reform needs,” including ending government efforts to undermine protocols and security standards. They praised Obama’s call to add an independent advocacy panel to weigh in on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, while saying Obama’s speech should be a “floor for reform, not a ceiling.
Obama is trying to ‘‘thread a very small needle’’ in balancing security and privacy concerns, David Cowan, an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, said in an interview.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for Internet privacy and free speech, rated the president’s speech a 3.5 out of 12, partly because it wasn’t ‘‘meaningful transparency reform.”
Senior intelligence officials have said Obama needs to move slowly in disclosing government orders for customer data, so as not to tip off adversaries.
“We need to make sure that any disclosures are operationally feasible with a reasonable degree of effort and that they would provide meaningful information to the public,” Robert Litt, general counsel for the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 11. “We also need to make sure that the disclosures do not compromise significant intelligence collection capabilities by providing our adversaries information that they can use to avoid surveillance.”
It remains to be seen whether the administration will seek to place a mandate on phone companies, such as Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) and AT&T Inc., to retain data for a certain number of years and under a format that makes it easy to search.
CTIA, a wireless trade group, said yesterday that it wants reform “without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”
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