Obama's NSA Reforms Leave Some Tech Companies Wanting More

Jan 18, 2014
Originally published on January 18, 2014 6:36 pm
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More than six months of revelations and debate about U.S. surveillance programs have put President Obama in a tight spot. In a highly anticipated speech yesterday, Mr. Obama outlined his plans for reforming the National Security Agency. He said the U.S. must protect itself while also maintaining the people's trust.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security. And we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.

RATH: A lot of groups were scrutinizing the president's words, but none more closely than American technology companies, which have strongly criticized NSA surveillance practices.

NPR's Steve Henn joins us to talk about the reception to the speech in Silicon Valley. Steve, briefly, what did the president propose yesterday?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, I think the biggest news for most Americans will be the announcement that the administration is going to end the bulk collection of Americans' telephone records or end the system at least as we know it now. For the last few years, the NSA has been collecting information about every telephone call made in the United States, not the names of the people attached to the telephone numbers, but what numbers connect to what other numbers and how long those calls last.

They built a massive database that allows them to search through networks of connections very quickly. And while the president insisted that this was an important tool that was necessary to preserve for the NSA, the way the system works now will end. Exactly what will replace the system is now unclear.

The president also promised greater transparency in the legal process, greater limits on how foreign intelligence could be used in U.S. courts. And he suggested that Congress should pass a law to create a privacy advocate to represent the public's interest in classified national security cases that go before the FISA court.

RATH: Because of the nature of NSA surveillance, there's been a direct effect on American tech companies. What were executives from companies like Google and Microsoft hoping to hear from the president yesterday?

HENN: Well, they were actually hoping to hear a lot more. A lot of the reforms I just mentioned really spoke to Americans' concerns about surveillance of Americans. And tech executives have been much more focused on how the revelations about the NSA's spying have damaged their company's reputations abroad. They wanted the right to be completely frank with customers about what kinds of information the U.S. government is accessing from their data networks.

They also wanted an explicit promise that the NSA would stop breaking into data networks overseas. There have been stories of the NSA tapping the fiber networks that link major tech companies' servers to each other and also breaking encryption. And finally, I think they were hoping for a firm commitment that foreign nationals' digital privacy would be protected in a meaningful way.

RATH: And in terms of what the president actually did say, what was the reaction?

HENN: Well, I think, really, it was frustration. Mozilla, the nonprofit that makes the Firefox browser, released a statement immediately after the speech arguing that the NSA revelations were pushing countries around the globe to create their own rules and attempts to protect their citizens' data. And whether these rules are really well-meaning or purely opportunistic, the effect that they could have is to sort of balkanize the net.

For example, Brazil, which is considering a data protection system that would require all Brazilians' data to be held domestically, would force international companies like Microsoft or Google to start building servers in Brazil and holding all data affecting Brazilians there. For a startup with international ambitions, that's an impossible hurdle or nearly impossible hurdle to clear. So there are real business repercussions to the fallout for many entrepreneurs and executives in this part of the world.

RATH: And is there anything the president could've said that would've addressed those concerns?

HENN: I think the president tried. Unfortunately, the technology executives were looking for a couple things. First, I think they wanted a firm promise that the NSA would not try to break into the digital networks of American companies abroad. I think another really important thing that went unsaid would've been a commitment that the NSA and the intelligence community would never again try to undermine public encryption standards, that these companies and others all around the world use to protect consumer's data. Neither of those subjects came up, but I think there is a lot of disappointment about that.

RATH: That's NPR's tech correspondent Steve Henn. Steve, thank you.

HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.