Tech Execs Complain About NSA During Obama Meeting

Dec 18, 2013
Originally published on December 18, 2013 8:02 am
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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. At the White House yesterday, President Obama sat down with some of the nation's most powerful technology executives. The White House said it was to talk about a range of issues but just one wound up dominating, and that is the NSA's program of extensive electronic eavesdropping.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled that program is unconstitutional. That will be appealed. Many of the executives present at the White House meeting complained that revelations the NSA is tapping into the global networks of firms like Microsoft and Google is doing serious damage to the U.S. tech sector and specifically, to their businesses.

For more, NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn joins us. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So could you tell us about yesterday's meeting? There were some heavy hitters there.

HENN: That's right - Sheryl Sandberg, from Facebook, was there; Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google; top lawyers from Microsoft and LinkedIn as well as Marissa Mayer, from Yahoo, and the CEO of Twitter. There were more than a half a dozen other technology CEOs there as well. But that first group is interesting because those firms all signed an open letter to the president and Congress last week, calling for global government surveillance reform.

WERTHEIMER: What, specifically, do they want the American administration to do?

HENN: Well, their demands are pretty straightforward and frankly, could be read as a rebuke of how the NSA has been operating, both at home and abroad. First, they don't want mass bulk collection of data. They believe searches should be targeted and specific.

Second, they want transparency. They want to be legally allowed to publish the number and nature of government demands for information. And finally, they're insisting that any searches take place within a legal framework. It's now clear that the NSA was able to break into these company's data networks overseas. And while that may not violate U.S. law, that's no comfort to Google's customers in, say, Germany.

WERTHEIMER: So what sort of an impact has this had on business?

HENN: I think most of the financial and business effects that they're seeing have been abroad, but I also think that there's some divergence among the companies. Some firms, like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, have said they've actually see declines in sales abroad that they believe were caused by these revelations. And pretty much every tech executive I've spoken with about this has said these events have severely damaged their credibility abroad.

But there's also a great deal of concern about how what's unfolding here could affect future regulations governing the Net all over the world. Some countries in Europe and Latin America are considering new rules that would require that information and data which is created by their own citizens, would have to be stored in their own countries. Now, it's not clear to me how that would necessarily protect them from the likes of the NSA, but it would create a giant technical headache for companies like Google and Microsoft. It would probably cost a fortune. And the executives at these companies say that it would functionally splinter the Internet, and hurt their customers and their products.

WERTHEIMER: So did these tech company heads get anything out of this meeting?

HENN: Well, you know, they got some time with the president to make their case but for now, at least, little else. And there was some frustration coming out of the meeting. This is pretty interesting because almost to a person, the executives who were invited to the White House from the companies who are most upset about surveillance have been major backers of this president in the past. Yahoo's Marissa Mayer hosted President Obama at her home. The founder of LinkedIn donated more than a million dollars to support the president's re-election.

There are very close, deep ties and in some ways, that almost makes things worse. It makes it more difficult for these companies to convince global customers that they're not complicit in what the NSA is doing, or that they don't have the clout to really force some changes.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Steve Henn, thank you very much.

HENN: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.