Google to Obama: Leave Us Out of Your Spying Fight

Silicon Valley doesn’t want people to confuse NSA prying with private data mining.

Caption:MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - JANUARY 30: A sign is posted on the exterior of Google headquarters on January 30, 2014 in Mountain View, California. Google reported a 17 percent rise in fourth quarter earnings with profits of $3.38 billion, or $9.90 a share compared to $2.9 billion, or $8.62 per share one year ago.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
April 8, 2014, 2:59 p.m.

Google is get­ting nervous.

On the one hand, the In­ter­net be­hemoth wants the pub­lic to know it’s out­raged by U.S. sur­veil­lance pro­grams and is ag­gress­ively lob­by­ing for new rules to keep its cus­tom­ers’ data safe from the gov­ern­ment’s pry­ing eyes.

But as pub­lic at­ten­tion turns to data pri­vacy, Google, Face­book, Ya­hoo, and oth­er tech gi­ants want to be sure that their own data-gath­er­ing prac­tices don’t get lumped in with the fed­er­al spy­ing pro­grams that are the tar­get of pop­u­lar ire.

At the top of their worry list: The White House is hold­ing the two up side-by-side. In Pres­id­ent Obama’s speech in Janu­ary out­lining Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency re­forms, he also ordered a John Podesta-led re­view of “big data,” the col­lec­tion and stor­age of massive amounts of per­son­al in­form­a­tion — in­clud­ing by private com­pan­ies.

The im­pli­cit mes­sage from the White House is that while the pub­lic has raised le­git­im­ate pri­vacy con­cerns about NSA spy­ing, sim­il­ar data-min­ing prac­tices by private com­pan­ies shouldn’t es­cape scru­tiny.

So when White House of­fi­cials in­vited out­side in­put from the pub­lic on the “big data” re­view, the tech world’s loudest voices were more than happy to of­fer an ear­ful. The com­pan­ies’ oft-re­peated mes­sage to the ad­min­is­tra­tion: Don’t con­flate your spy­ing prac­tices with our data-pri­vacy plans.

“We urge the ad­min­is­tra­tion to be cog­niz­ant that gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance and com­mer­cial pri­vacy are sep­ar­ate and dis­tinct is­sues,” the In­ter­net As­so­ci­ation, a lob­by­ing group that rep­res­ents Google, Face­book, Ya­hoo, and oth­ers, wrote in a com­ment. “Giv­en that In­ter­net com­pan­ies aim to provide trans­par­ency, choice, and con­trol to con­sumers, ef­forts to con­flate these is­sues are coun­ter­pro­duct­ive, par­tic­u­larly giv­en how little trans­par­ency cit­izens cur­rently have when it comes to gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance.”

BSA — a soft­ware lob­by­ing group that in­cludes Apple, Mi­crosoft, and IBM — urged the White House to make all ef­forts to “avoid con­flat­ing gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial in­terests in data.”

One tech­no­logy-in­dustry lob­by­ist said there is wide­spread frus­tra­tion with the White House for con­duct­ing the big-data and NSA re­views in par­al­lel.

“Com­pan­ies have very spe­cif­ic re­la­tion­ships with their users, and they tell them what they’re do­ing with their data,” the tech lob­by­ist said, adding that it is an “apples and or­anges” com­par­is­on to NSA sur­veil­lance.

The White House did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Tech com­pan­ies are lob­by­ing against NSA spy­ing be­cause they worry it could un­der­mine trust in their ser­vices. But they de­pend on the abil­ity to har­vest data about users to tar­get ad­vert­ising and to provide oth­er ser­vices.

The White House has ac­know­ledged — and the tech com­pan­ies have em­phas­ized — that massive data­bases can power in­nov­at­ive new ser­vices that be­ne­fit con­sumers. The in­dustry points to ser­vices that more ef­fect­ively scan emails for spam, help drivers avoid traffic, and pre­dict the weath­er. Data are also help­ing sci­ent­ists study dis­eases and de­vel­op more-ef­fect­ive treat­ments.

Gautam Hans, an at­tor­ney for the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, a con­sumer-ad­vocacy group, agreed that the con­cerns about gov­ern­ment and private uses of data are dif­fer­ent. But he ar­gued that Con­gress should en­act more lim­it­a­tions on how private com­pan­ies can col­lect and handle private in­form­a­tion.

“In the big-data con­text, much of it is sens­it­ive in­form­a­tion like health data or loc­a­tion data, so private com­pan­ies all need to re­cog­nize that pri­vacy and se­cur­ity are im­port­ant, and these are not min­im­al con­cerns,” he said.

Al­though the tech com­pan­ies are nervous about hav­ing the spot­light on them, the chances for new on­line-pri­vacy reg­u­la­tions still ap­pear slim. The White House an­nounced a “Con­sumer Pri­vacy Bill of Rights” in 2012, but the is­sue has gone nowhere on Cap­it­ol Hill.

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