A veritable pantheon of top-ranking emissaries from some of the largest and most powerful tech companies in the United States descended on the White House today to press the Obama administration to move aggressively on reforming the NSA’s nearly universal surveillance of US citizens and the world. Their message was clear: Stop the spy agency from forcibly or stealthily seizing and storing bulk data about their customers. The message comes during an ongoing firestorm of public opposition to the agency’s bulk data collection programs, ignited and continually stoked by the revelation of Edward Snowden’s cache of an estimated 1.7 million stolen NSA documents detailing its ongoing quest for data omniscience.
The meeting was supposed to be primarily about the ailing healthcare.gov website, according to the Guardian‘s estimation of the White House’s agenda. But the tech companies were having none of that, insisting the meeting was about the NSA and only the NSA. As one unnamed executive put it: “That is not going to happen. We are there to talk about the NSA.” Another executive said that all non-NSA concerns were “peripheral” and that “There’s only one subject that people really want to discuss right now.”
They came in with guns blazing, it would seem. After the meeting, the companies released a joint statement expressing “appreciation” for having had the chance to explain things to the President. It would appear they got the message across. Present at the meeting were Apple CEO Tim Cook, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Google executive chair Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of AT&T Randall Stephenson, and top representatives from Comcast, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Netflix.
Whether that message transmogrifies to real-world reform of the NSA remains to be seen in the months and years (and decades) to come. The tech companies and others have been pushing hard in a unified front to put an end to the NSA’s bulk data collection practices. On Dec. 9 the tech industry issued an open letter stating their opposition to the practices. Last month, Google engineers lamented that “all too often, laws are for the little people.”
Now don’t go thinking the tech companies are our knights in shining armor for privacy and upholding the 4th amendment (against unlawful search and seizure.) Private industry has long been in collusion with the NSA on spying on people not suspected of a crime. Sometimes they even go out of their way to one-up the government agency, as in the case of AT&T proactively pursuing a patent for collecting data on their customers’ browsing habits under the guise of “protecting” subscribers from committing media piracy.
Additionally, the tech companies may be presumed to be advocating for privacy only on behalf of people not suspected of a crime — the vast majority of people. There has been little indication that the industry would like to do away with the kind of legitimate surveillance associated with targeted law enforcement. Individuals suspected of crimes may still be spied on, goes the general sentiment. It’s the mass surveillance that concerns the companies.
It’s complicated; there’s bound to be some cognitive dissonance in all this. What’s important to note here is that the industry is displaying a unity unheard of in the rough-and-tumble workaday world of strange bedfellows, passive-aggressive patent wars, and advertising low-blows. Pair that with yesterday’s revelation that a federal judge has ruled the NSA’s bulk phone data tapping programs unconstitutional, and you have the beginnings of what could in time be a glimmer of hope for privacy advocates worldwide.