Can the tech industry strike the privacy, safety balance?

January 20, 2014 at 7:00 PM EDT
Even before President Obama outlined his proposed changes in how the NSA should collect data for surveillance, many tech giants were vocal in their criticism. Gwen Ifill discusses what's at stake with Christian Dawson of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition and Nuala O'Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
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GWEN IFILL: The president’s speech on surveillance and privacy late last week rattled cages from Silicon Valley to foreign capitals. But a new survey from the Pew Research Center and USA Today found nearly half of those polled believe there are still not enough limits placed on the government’s collection of telephone and Web data.

Many of the people who produce and market the technology used to conduct the surveillance agree.

Even before President Obama outlined his proposed changes in how the NSA should collect data for surveillance, many tech giants, like Google, Apple and Facebook, were vocal in their criticism. In public and in private White House meetings, executives complained the government is using their software to vacuum up data like e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

On Friday, the president pledged additional privacy protection and to allow companies to be more transparent about how often they are required to cooperate with the government on such requests. But there were few specifics, and the president said the government is not the only one gathering and storing such information.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes. That’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone periodically. But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher.

Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We Won’t abuse the data we collect.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama said he would look at restricting how many phone records could be collected under what is known as the 215 program. That might include turning the information over to a non-governmental third party.

Republican Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said yesterday the president is trying to have it both ways.

REP. MIKE ROGERS, R-Mich.: Then he said, well, I have some concerns about moving it to the private sector. He outlined that very well. Then he said, but I don’t think the government can do it, so I’m going — we’re going to conduct another 70-day review, basically, and then review it again.

GWEN IFILL: The president also didn’t address another concern of the tech sector: the National Security Agency’s efforts to weaken some encryption standards.

For the view from Silicon Valley, we’re joined by Christian Dawson, co-founder and chairman of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, a consortium of technology companies. And Nuala O’Connor, she’s the incoming president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to Internet openness.

Welcome to you both.

CHRISTIAN DAWSON, Internet Infrastructure Coalition: Thank you very much for having us.

GWEN IFILL: Nuala O’Connor, did the president go far enough?

NUALA O’CONNOR, Center for Democracy and Technology: No, he didn’t.

There is much to admire in the president’s speech. And we’re really gratified by his commitment to protect civil liberties in the war on terror. But the speech didn’t go as far as we would have liked to have been in being clear about the specifics of how he plans to end bulk data collection as we know it.

Our position is that the default setting for the technology in our daily lives, our cell phones, our Internet searches cannot be that all of that data ends up in the hands of the federal government.

GWEN IFILL: Is the tech industry being treated, Christian Dawson, differently than other industries, and maybe ought it to be, considering the kind of tentacles it has in our lives?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: Well, the tech industry is different, in that we are the economic engine who has been driving the economy for the past decade.

And it’s been what is working most in this economy in the past decade. What the president was doing in this speech didn’t go far enough. What we needed to do was…

GWEN IFILL: What did you need him to do?

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: That’s OK. You just — you needed him to go farther? You needed them to do what, just push the envelope farther?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: There was a — there seemed to be a lack of understanding of exactly what the stakes are here, because what we have at risk here is the loss of the global free Internet.

We needed the president to go up there and explain to the world that we — we think that privacy is important here. The privacy norms that we have in the United States don’t meet European standards. They don’t meet the standards of much of the world.

And if we don’t go out with bold language to convince the world that we do believe in privacy standards, we are going to see an E.U. Internet and a U.S. Internet and a China Internet and a…

GWEN IFILL: But there this idea that the discussion about privacy, is that more of a business concern, the fact that if the U.S. has a reputation for impinging on privacy, that it hurts the bottom lines of the tech industry, Nuala?

NUALA O’CONNOR: I do see in my friends in the tech industry a real concern that their sales and their effectiveness is being hurt and damaged by the revelations of the last summer.

But we see it even more as an individual liberty issue. This is about the relationship of the individual to their information, the digital self. The fact that my transactions online, the fact that my behavior could be tracked and analyzed by NSA surveillance, without any kind of legal predicate, without any kind of suspicion about my having done something wrong, that’s very concerning to us.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both a question, just a kind of devil’s advocate question. Why am I to believe as a consumer that the tech industry, the software producers were shocked, shocked there was drinking going on at Rick’s bar, that you didn’t know that this is what the government was up to, that you weren’t cooperating with it all along?

I will start with you, Christian.

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: I’m a tech company, and I haven’t been cooperating with it all along.

The problem here is that nobody really knows the rules of the game. These — like sections 215, the language is very unclear and the standards by which people are — by which decisions are being made, they’re not clear to anybody. And until we have that transparency, then we don’t have the world confidence.

GWEN IFILL: Is the concern that the government doesn’t allow you to disclose or that there is nothing to disclose?

NUALA O’CONNOR: I think the transparency issue is a very important one, but I think it’s nibbling around the edges.

What we don’t want to see is the wholesale importation of data from the tech industry to the federal government prior to there being any kind of reasonable suspicion about your behavior or mine. Did some parties in the tech industry know? I can’t say.

But I know that we are concerned, certainly, that the individual citizen doesn’t know what is happening to their data.

GWEN IFILL: Is this a concern? But let’s go back again to the — we understand the individual citizens argument and privacy. But as far as the industry goes, is this an international concern? Is this a concern about how you are being viewed abroad, as well as how you are being viewed here?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: I’m a business leader. And, traditionally, 60 percent of my businesses come from international sources.

There’s not a tolerance for that in today’s market. So, absolutely, this is an international issue.

GWEN IFILL: So what are people saying? Do you get phone calls from would-be clients saying, I don’t know if I trust you anymore?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: Well, they can move their businesses somewhere else in two clicks, and so they don’t even need to bother with the phone call.

And so we are absolutely losing economic growth and seeing it go overseas due to this issue.

NUALA O’CONNOR: It is a competitiveness issue. And Christian is right that it is also a potential balkanization issue.

We are concerned about an open Internet. We’re concerned about free expression. We’re concerned about the sharing of information. I want engineers in one part of the world to be able to communicate with engineers in another part of the world, to share ideas and to create new technology that is going to benefit the world.

If we start siloing information because people are afraid to transact business either in the United States or in other parts of the world, we are going to lose productivity, innovation, and ingenuity, not just in this country, but globally as well.

GWEN IFILL: Here is the president’s argument, the administration’s argument. We have to find the correct balance between protecting our citizens and protecting their security and protecting their constitutional rights. What, in your opinion, going forward is the correct balance?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: The correct balance is definitely to focus on the process and to make sure that everybody knows what the process is.

But we also ought to do — we have to do that with the world watching. For instance, if we are going to have mass collection at — if we’re going to be using backdoors, technological backdoors, that needs to be something that we go through a process of engaging the government on.

We went through this process a few years ago. There was — and we decided, as an organization — as a world — sorry — as the United States people, that we didn’t want these — when they tried to pass Clipper chip legislation and decided that the Clipper chip wasn’t going to be something that we tolerate. And so…

GWEN IFILL: But Americans also aren’t particularly interested in tolerating the idea that they are less safe. So what is — what is the balance there?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: Well…

NUALA O’CONNOR: We’re not asking for this country to be less safe. We want to keep our children and our homes and our neighbors safe.

But I think we can do better. We can do better with more targeted, limited searches. We can do better with technology. The technology industry is at issue here, but it can also be a solution. It can be a savior to this problem by using more legitimate means, maybe encrypted or de-identified data, maybe more targeted databases.

But we do not want to see a wholesale importation of data into the government or into the hands of a third party. That is going to raise even further concerns about privacy and security of that data.

GWEN IFILL: Where we stand tonight, has the tech industry taken a confidence hit in the wake of these revelations, the Edward Snowden revelations, and the government’s involvement? Or are you just trying to get ahead of it before you can begin to measure or have measurable impact?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: Well, of course it has. It’s taken a…

GWEN IFILL: It already has? How do you measure that?

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: Well, we’re in the process of measuring that.

But we see in the news every day that we have seen on a number of occasions contracts going overseas. We’re collecting data on loss of business. And, absolutely, it comes directly out of these revelations.

GWEN IFILL: So what do you do about that?

NUALA O’CONNOR: I think we have got to be clear, not only as a government, but as an industry, from your side, what the rules are.

Transparency is part of it. But, again, I think legitimate limited law enforcement, national security purposes are something everyone can support. But we have got to be a lot clearer about what the rules are and about it being targeted and strategic, not wholesale data.

GWEN IFILL: Nuala O’Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Christian Dawson of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, thank you both very much.

CHRISTIAN DAWSON: Thank you very much.

NUALA O’CONNOR: Thank you.