Latest NSA Overreach Awakens Tech Giants in Washington

National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Nov. 3, 2013, 7:29 a.m.

The most re­cent round of Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency rev­el­a­tions have promp­ted ma­jor tech firms to pub­licly take a stronger stance against gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance activ­it­ies, an es­cal­a­tion that could por­tend a shift in the way Sil­ic­on Val­ley does busi­ness in Wash­ing­ton.

A group of six tech be­hemoths — Google, Ya­hoo, Apple, Face­book, Mi­crosoft, and Amer­ica On­line — sent a let­ter to law­makers last week call­ing for le­gis­la­tion to cur­tail the NSA’s au­thor­ity. The com­pan­ies spe­cific­ally cham­pioned the Free­dom Act, in­tro­duced by Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and former House Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., with sup­port from more than 80 co­spon­sors, for “mak­ing an im­port­ant con­tri­bu­tion to this dis­cus­sion.”

The let­ter came in the wake of new de­tails about NSA sur­veil­lance in The Wash­ing­ton Post, which re­por­ted about a pro­gram dubbed MUS­CU­LAR that secretly breaks in­to the on­line com­mu­nic­a­tion chan­nels of Google and Ya­hoo, scoop­ing up mil­lions of re­cords every day.

Google Ex­ec­ut­ive Chair­man Eric Schmidt has also joined the chor­us of agit­ata­tion, call­ing the new rev­el­a­tion “really out­rageous” if true.

“The steps that the (NSA) was will­ing to do without good judg­ment to pur­sue its mis­sion and po­ten­tially vi­ol­ate people’s pri­vacy, it’s not OK,” Schmidt told The Wall Street Journ­al. “The Snowden rev­el­a­tions have as­sisted us in un­der­stand­ing that it’s per­fectly pos­sible that there are more rev­el­a­tions to come.”

Wheth­er more rev­el­a­tions are com­ing or not, the latest spate “will fur­ther strain the re­la­tion­ship between Sil­ic­on Val­ley and the NSA be­cause it in­volves in­trud­ing in­to the in­tern­al com­mu­nic­a­tions of the com­pan­ies,” said Ed Fel­ten, dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy Policy at Prin­ceton Uni­versity. “Rather than us­ing court or­ders served on the com­pan­ies, I think this will be seen as cross­ing a bound­ary that people didn’t ex­pect gov­ern­ment to cross.”

The tech lobby will likely view the new al­leg­a­tions — that the NSA went be­hind their backs to col­lect data the agency could already largely ac­cess through court or­ders, and then gloated about it — as a dis­ap­point­ing, if un­sur­pris­ing, act of be­tray­al. But it is un­clear wheth­er the change in rhet­or­ic will amount to any on-the-ground change for how Sil­ic­on Val­ley en­gages with fed­er­al poli­cy­makers, or if their pos­tur­ing will im­pact any NSA bill’s chances of get­ting to the pres­id­ent’s desk.

The tech gi­ants for years have been look­ing for ways to bet­ter in­form their cus­tom­ers about “the size and scope of their co­oper­a­tion with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment,” said a Demo­crat­ic aide who has been work­ing on the Free­dom Act. “The pub­lic com­ment was a big shift.”

The firms are now lined up with an ar­ray of in­terests seek­ing sub­stant­ive re­forms in the NSA’s code of con­duct. That is it­self a shift, since the tech lobby has long been seen as dis­in­ter­ested or even dis­missive of Wash­ing­ton. The view has be­gun to change in re­cent years, however.

Google’s D.C. lob­by­ing ef­forts have ex­ploded over the last dec­ade, from vir­tu­ally no ex­pendit­ures to more than $18 mil­lion in 2012, ac­cord­ing to data from the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. And Face­book founder Mark Zuck­er­berg is in­creas­ingly un­res­trained in his lob­by­ing for im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Des­pite the en­dorse­ment of some of tech’s largest play­ers, however, the Free­dom Act still has a long road ahead. Cur­rent House Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Bob Good­latte, R-Va., has made pat­ent re­form his top le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­ity be­fore Con­gress ad­journs for the year.

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