Obama Meets with Apple's Tim Cook and Others for Much-Needed Surveillance Discussion

President Barack Obama held a closed-door (private) meeting on Thursday with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google VP Vint Cerf, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, and civil liberties leaders, according to reports from Politico and other political sites. While no one is offering up specifics on the meeting, the topic at hand is the government's much criticized surveillance program(s) that have caught many top American technology firms in a growing wave of foreign criticism.

Private Meeting, Keep Out!

"The meeting was part of the ongoing dialogue the president has called for on how to respect privacy while protecting national security in a digital era," a White House spokesperson told Reuters.

The White House launched a new outreach effort that began earlier this week in private meetings with others tech execs and civil liberties groups. The meetings have essentially been secret—itself the object of criticism from people wanting the White House to be more open about these issues—but are part of President Obama's promise to have more public debate about U.S. counterterrorism policies and privacy concerns.

The first meeting was held on Tuesday. That meeting was attended by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and general counsel Kathy Ruemmler, who met with representatives of the Information Technology Industry Council, TechNet and TechAmerica, trade groups that represent companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, and many others.

That meeting was not attended by President Obama, though Politico reported that members of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center were there.

As noted above, Thursday's meeting included the President, Apple's Tim Cook, Google's Vint Cerf, and AT&T's Randall Stephenson.

An Apple spokeswoman issued a statement to Reuters emphasizing that protecting customer data was a high priority for the company. She said, "We strongly advocate greater transparency around the demands we get from government agencies."

This is a call that other companies have made in the wake of revelations from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. The contractor leaked numerous documents saying that the NSA was regularly spying on Americans and foreigners alike and collecting information in dragnets from top American tech giants, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, and more.

Those companies have denied giving the U.S. backdoor access to their servers, but have said they follow the law in complying with warrants issued by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They have also called on the U.S. government to allow them to be more open about how many such requests they receive and the nature of those requests.

This is in part because U.S. citizens are concerned about blanket eavesdropping by the NSA. Even worse (from the standpoint of multinational corporations) is the fact that companies outside the U.S. have begun looking to non-U.S. firms for cloud services.

If that's not stemmed, America's snooping program could have the direct and obvious effect of chasing billions of dollars of business (if not far more) to companies outside the U.S., a pointless and completely avoidable fiasco for U.S. technology leadership. America's political adversaries are also making (obvious) political hay from the situation, and even her allies are heaping criticism on U.S. policies.

All because some of our political leaders thought that unchecked secret surveillance using secret laws, secret interpretations of those laws, and secret courts would somehow protect our freedom. At the same time, the desktop spies in the NSA were delusional enough to think this stuff could remain secret forever.

In the meanwhile, the White House has defended its various surveillance programs and their secrecy as essential to U.S. security, a move that has angered many on the left who helped elect President Obama, and some on the right who remember what the principles of small government really mean.

That's the environment of this week's meetings with privacy and civil liberties advocates and U.S. technology barons. Capital—in the form of the tech companies—and privacy advocates are roughly aligned on these topics, at least in terms of being more open about U.S. policies, and the White House is listening to both groups.

I, for one, hope that this leads to a more reality-based approach on the topics of surveillance, privacy, and openness.

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