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Tech talks to Obama: Lighten up with the NSA

A who’s who of top tech executives met with President Obama on Tuesday. The President wanted to focus on problems with the Obamacare Web site. But the executives had another agenda. They needed to let Obama know how government snooping destroys their customers’ trust and hurts the American Internet industry.

“There were a lot of very concerned executives at the meeting today,” explained tech lobbyist Mike McGeary. “There is growing concern…that [tech companies] are at a competitive disadvantage because of these revelations,” resulting in a “perceived lack of security.”

Among the executives in attendance were Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and Yahoo's chief executive Marissa Mayer, as well as executives from AT&T, Microsoft, Facebook, and others. Vice President Joe Biden and other White House staffers attended, along with President Obama. Coincidentally, the meeting occurred the day after Judge Richard Leon ruled much of the NSA’s activities unconstitutional.

Prior to the meeting, the White House declared that the meeting’s primary focus would be the struggling and extremely flawed Affordable Care Act Web site. “That is not going to happen,” an unidentified tech executive told The Guardian before the meeting. “We are there to talk about the NSA.”

According to a Guardian article by Dominic Rushe, Paul Lewis, and Spencer Ackerman, the meeting lasted about two hours and 45 minutes. “The healthcare website issues were discussed for only 45 minutes at most,” an executive told the Guardian.

The White House should not have been surprised. Earlier this month, an open letter by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo called for reigning in government data collection. “We urge the US to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.” Most of these companies, of course, have not shown great concern for their customers’ privacy when it wasn’t in their interest to do so.

According to a Washington Post article by Cecilia Kang and Ellen Nakashima, the executives in the meeting basically repeated the demands made in the open letter. An unnamed industry official, quoted by the Post, described the industry message as “What the hell are you doing?”

After it was all over, everyone made diplomatic announcements. "We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the President our principles on government surveillance," the technology companies said in a statement after the session. A senior Obama administration official described the meeting as “not at all contentious,” according to Reuters.

Officially, the White House stated that "The president made clear his belief in an open, free and innovative Internet and listened to the group's concerns and recommendations, and made clear that we will consider their input…" The President is expected to make recommendations in January for a review of NSA activities.

It would be nice to think that the government really does care about protecting your personal secrets. The same goes for the corporations that brought up their grievances. The cold reality, however, is that only you can protect your privacy.

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