Obama Addresses Corporate Role in Government Surveillance — Sort Of

At the New Yorker’s web site, staff writer John Cassidy observed:

In other important areas, the President didn’t announce any new proposals. Going ahead, agencies like the NSA and the FBI will still be able to obtain personal data from communications companies without a court order, by issuing national-security letters. Obama rejected the suggestion that the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Security Act] courts should have to approve such letters, saying that “we should not set a standard for terrorism investigations that is higher than those involved in investigating an ordinary crime.…. And from what Obama said, or didn’t say, the NSA still appears to be free to hack into the data centers of companies like Google and Yahoo, which, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, it does routinely.

Since the Snowden revelations broke last year, the internet and communications companies that interface most directly with the public formed the Reform Government Surveillance coalition to ramped up their pressure on Congress and the administration to allow them to disclose more about their cooperation with intelligence agencies, taking out full page ads and holding a summit with the President last Fall.  Politico’s Tony Rom characterized the president’s remarks as “a nod of support” to them:

That’s good news for tech companies that fear an erosion of consumer trust and a backlash in Europe and other markets over their perceived cooperation with U.S. government snooping.

Interestingly, however, the president’s speech also reminded listeners not so subtly that if the government is Big Brother, tech companies are its evil twin in the race to destroy personal privacy:

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 and your smartphone periodically.

The coalition — AOL, Apple, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo — issued what the New York Times called a “polite if unenthusiastic” joint statement after the speech, saying that the President’s commitments “represent positive progress.”

Mozilla, creater of the Firefox browser, was more frank. Alex Fowler, head of public policy for Mozilla, told the Los Angeles Times:

Overall, the strategy seems to be to leave current intelligence processes largely intact and improve oversight to a degree. We’d hoped for, and the Internet deserves, more. Without a meaningful change of course, the Internet will continue on its path toward a world of balkanization and distrust, a grave departure from its origins of openness and opportunity.

Fowler called for legislative reforms that put an end to the practice of collecting and decrypting data held by the companies. (Could it be coincidence that Mozilla is a nonprofit organization?)

Speaking of encryption, President Obama was mum on the subject the NSA’s efforts to weaken encryption standards to make it easier for the agency to crack private communications networks. One of the Review Group’s 46 recommendations called on the government to cease that effort and to support efforts to encourage the greater use of encryption technology. That would certainly make us feel safer.

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