US National Security Agency

Tech chiefs meet Obama over fears NSA spying row hurting business

Meeting fails to placate executives, including Zuckerberg, who fear NSA is hurting business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 5:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 6:57pm

US President Barack Obama and several top advisers have met six technology executives at the White House amid fears that National Security Agency spying is undermining one of the nation's most vital industries, especially in lucrative overseas markets.

The global backlash to revelations about NSA surveillance has become a top concern for hi-tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which are battling allegations that American firms are more vulnerable to US government spying and pay insufficient attention to consumer privacy.

While the White House presented the session as "part of a continuing dialogue on issues surrounding intelligence, technology and privacy", it did not satisfy all those participating.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who expressed frustration before the meeting, left dissatisfied.

"While the US government has taken helpful steps to reform its surveillance practices, these are simply not enough," Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth said after the 90-minute White House meeting. "People around the globe deserve to know that their information is secure and Facebook will keep urging the US government to be more transparent about its practices and more protective of civil liberties."

Zuckerberg called the president earlier this month to vent his frustrations after it was reported that the NSA had mimicked Facebook pages to trick intelligence targets into downloading malicious software.

Friday's meeting - which also included executives from Google, Netflix, Dropbox, Palantir and Box - was one of a series organised by the White House in recent months to discuss NSA and privacy issues with business executives, foreign leaders and privacy advocates.

Presidential adviser John Podesta, who is leading an inquiry into "big data" and privacy, attended the Friday session. He said earlier that he had met more than 200 corporate and government officials, as well as academic experts and civil liberties advocates, on these issues in the past few weeks alone.

"We strongly back a free and open internet, and we don't want to see the internet Balkanised," Podesta said. "But we also have to listen to and provide reassurance to the public that their privacy will be protected and rights won't be abused. That is what this scoping exercise is all about."

The financial costs of the NSA revelations, though impossible to quantify fully, have been in the many billions of dollars, according to the technology industry, which has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the US economy during years of overall sluggishness.

The cloud computing industry, which provides remote computer services to customers worldwide, has been hit particularly hard by the backlash to the NSA revelations.

Because so much of what transpires online is deeply personal, issues of privacy and trust are particularly sensitive. US laws - especially when compared with those in Europe and elsewhere - provide little protection for consumers against collection of data for commercial purposes, compounding concerns overseas about American companies.

"US companies are paying an enormous price for the failure of the White House to do anything on the privacy problem," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, an advocacy group based in Washington.