Tech giants call for tighter limits on government surveillance

December 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The giants of the tech industry made a highly public appeal today to rein in government surveillance. It came in the form of an open letter to President Obama.

The call for curbs focused on people’s personal information being collected from online traffic. Eight major companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, banded together to write an open letter to the president and Congress. It appeared in full-page newspaper ads and online.

The letter read in part: “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual, rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish.”

It’s the tech giants’ latest bid to salvage public trust, amid revelations that they have had to provide users’ data to the government. The details come from Edward Snowden, who leaked a trove of material from the National Security Agency last summer. Intelligence officials maintain the data collection operation has thwarted a number of terror attacks.

A presidential advisory panel has been reviewing the issue. Its findings could come this week.

We hear now from the tech world. Brad Smith is the general counsel and an executive vice president of Microsoft. He’s also speaking on behalf of the companies that signed today’s letter.

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Brad Smith, welcome to the program.

What is it that the government is doing that Microsoft and the other companies want them to stop?

BRAD SMITH, Microsoft: Well, throughout our industry, we’re concerned about the increasing reports that government surveillance, including in the U.S., but also elsewhere, has gone beyond what people understood.

We see a need for reform. And specifically we’re hoping that there will be clear legal rules. All of this should take place pursuant to the law. There should be stronger executive oversight. There needs to be enhanced review by the courts. And there needs to be a bit more transparency, certainly, so that we can all have the confidence in the public that we live in a safe country, but also one where we know enough about what the government is doing to be confident that people are striking the right balance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Isn’t it the case that the tech companies, though, have been providing data to the government?

BRAD SMITH: Well, for many years, we have been responding to subpoenas, to warrants, to court orders.

We, of course, know what we have been doing. But, frankly, what really surprised people across the tech sector was at the end of October, The Washington Post reported that, beyond these legal processes, there were government efforts to, in effect, collect data. In this instance, it was data moving between the data centers within Yahoo! and within Google.

And that wasn’t within the confines of any legal process that anybody was aware of. And that sent a shockwave throughout the industry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have been reading today what some of the privacy advocates say. And a couple of them point out that it is because tech companies like Microsoft and the others collect so much personal data yourselves, that that is what makes it attractive for the government, that they wouldn’t be, in other words, trying to come after this data if you and the other companies didn’t have it.

BRAD SMITH: Well, there’s a piece of this that may involve data that companies are collecting.

But the reality is, frankly, most things turn on e-mails, text messages, Web sites that people are visiting. You know, people do send a lot. They share a lot. They want to do that. And that is important in the context of government investigations. But I would actually say that, more than anything else, is what started it to focus government investigators on this set of issues over a decade ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Have the companies tried to talk to the government privately about this? Because you’re — you’re launching this big public campaign today. We know the White House, the president has said he’s had a task force out, I guess, studying it. And it looks like they’re going to be making some recommendations.

Have you made an attempt to settle this behind the scenes?

BRAD SMITH: Well, there have been a lot of discussions. And we appreciate the degree to which people in the government are listening.

We know that President Obama is thinking about this. We know that leaders in other countries are as well. But it’s an issue of broad importance to the public. Everybody should be concerned about the balance being struck between protecting safety on the one hand, which is obviously important, and protecting our fundamental freedoms and rights to privacy as well.

So, as important as private discussions are, this is too important to leave to private discussion alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I also see that the companies are trying to expand your own encryption to make it harder for outsiders to come in and scoop up or take what you have. Tell us a little bit about that.

BRAD SMITH: We, have certainly realized as an industry that there are more governments — and this is not confined to any single country — that are seeking to hack their way or tap into cables and collect data.

So here at Microsoft, but really across our industry, companies increasingly are taking steps. We’re increasing encryption. That, in effect, puts everything in code when it’s going across a cable, for example, so that a government cannot read, necessarily, what it might be getting.

We’re increasing the ability of governments and others, customers, to just knows what’s going on, because we understand that people do have a need to know. We’re increasing legal protections for our customers. We’re really striving to take a comprehensive approach to insurance that the public can trust the technology they use in their everyday lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that — and — and you touch on a question, I think, that a lot of people have. To some extent, the government needs access to communications that may be involved in — involved in or creating a threat to security.

How do you — how do you and the companies know how to strike that balance?

BRAD SMITH: Well, I think the most important question is, who should strike the balance between public safety on the one hand and personal freedoms on the other?

As soon as you can that question, you realize that, in any kind of democratic society, it should be the government itself. We need clear laws. We need the kind of transparency so the public knows how these laws are being applied. We need to recognize that, as important as public safety clearly is, we also have important constitutional freedoms, the right to speak, the right to be secure from unreasonable government searches, all of which are at stake.

This is a matter for the public at large to decide through our elective processes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brad Smith with Microsoft, thank you very much.

BRAD SMITH: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the record, we have asked the National Security Agency for an interview. We hope to hear from NSA officials at a later time.