Leaders of high-tech companies, including Google and Facebook, descended on the White House Friday for a meeting with President Obama on the subject of privacy. The meeting itself was private. But aides say Obama wanted to hear from the CEOs about their concerns with the government’s high-tech surveillance.
High-tech CEOs are not the obvious messengers to be delivering a privacy lecture to the government. After all, they make their money by scanning customers’ emails and tracking their movements, all with the goal of serving up more targeted ads. Just a few years ago, Google’s Eric Schmidt told an interviewer, “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
But Marc Rotenberg, who directs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the titans of Silicon Valley have suddenly gotten religion.
“The Internet leaders who might have said a few years ago that privacy is a thing of the past, today they’re at the White House telling the president we need to find a way to protect privacy. And that’s a remarkable turn of events,” he said.
What changed, of course, is the revelation by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of just how widespread the government’s snooping has been, often with the help, knowingly or unknowingly, of those same high-tech companies.
“Mr. Snowden has done more to raise the level of public awareness about privacy issues than probably anyone else I can think of,” Rotenberg said.
And that has the potential to hurt the companies’ bottom lines. Since the Snowden leaks began last summer, public opinion towards government surveillance has steadily soured. Fifty-three percent of Americans now disapprove of the NSA’s spying. Pollster Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center says this is the rare issue that unites Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats.
“It’s really an area on which you do find common ground between conservatives and liberals. Consistently across these polls, liberals and conservatives are expressing the most concern about it whereas people in the middle of the electorate are somewhat less concerned,” he said.
Disapproval of government surveillance is strongest among people under the age of 30. While this generation shows little reluctance to document their every movement on electronic devices, Doherty says they don’t like the government looking over their shoulder.
“They are concerned about privacy. They really are. And this issue has clicked a bit with young people,” he said.
The White House meeting comes one week before the administration has to make some decisions about how to reform its collection of bulk telephone data.
President Obama has promised to make some adjustments — particularly to the program under which the NSA has been stockpiling telephone records. The legal authorization for that program expires next week and Obama wants to replace it with something different, though he hasn’t said what. Obama insists that government workers who carry out survillance do take privacy concerns seriously.
“They have kids on Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where transactions are recorded, and emails and text and messages are stored, and even our movements can increasingly be tracked through the GPS on our phones,” he said.
Privacy advocate Rotenberg says Internet companies could reduce the temptation for government spying if they simply stopped storing years’ worth of personal data about their customers.
So far though, the companies haven’t been willing to take that step.