Technology giants claim the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance programs are hurting the American economy, and one Senator is hoping to use that warning to push stalled reform through Congress.
Google, Microsoft, and Facebook were just some of the companies represented at a public forum held by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Wednesday, and they all expressed concern over the possibility that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) practices will not only hurt their businesses, but the internet in general.
“We’re going to end up breaking the Internet,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt cautioned at the forum, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, said the company’s European clients are already concerned their data is more susceptible to snooping by the NSA. With some countries mulling over laws that would ensure data on their citizens is physically stored inside of their borders, US-based tech companies argue that rising costs associated with what are essentially trust-based regulations would be a drag on the economy.
“Laws that the rest of the world doesn’t respect will ultimately undermine the fundamental ability of our own legal processes, law enforcement agencies and even the intelligence community itself,” Smith said.
In response, Wyden – a much-touted surveillance reform advocate – said he would use these warnings to compel lawmakers to take action.
“What I’m going to do is say there’s a clear and present danger to the Internet economy,” Wyden said to the AP.
“When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington gets up at arms. But, even today, almost no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the U.S. economy,” he added in his remarks at the forum.
Last year, a report highlighted by Bloomberg suggested that NSA surveillance could cost the US up to $180 billion in global technology sales by 2016. Another said American companies could risk $35 billion a year if foreign customers decide to look elsewhere for similar services.
“Customers buy products and services based on a company’s reputation, and the NSA has single-handedly tarnished the reputation of the entire U.S. tech industry,” said analyst Daniel Castro to the website. “I suspect many foreign customers are going to be shopping elsewhere for their hardware and software.”
Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that Wyden’s plan to push Congress will work – at least not this year. In September, it was reported that Congress may not take up the USA Freedom Act reform bill until after the midterm elections. Even then, it’s possible that action will be delayed until 2015.
The USA Freedom Act would place metadata records – information such as the time a call was made, the duration of the call, but not the actual content of the call itself – in the possession of telephone companies instead of the NSA. If intelligence agencies wanted to gain access to the data, they would have to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
Although the House of Representatives passed the original draft in May, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) further strengthened the bill at the behest of civil liberties advocates. However, key reformers like Wyden have not thrown their support behind the bill, hoping for stronger measures against the “backdoor” collection of Americans’ data, something done indirectly when the primary target is a foreigner.
Wyden, along with his colleague Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), may even wait until the Patriot Act is up for renewal in June 2015, believing they could use its pending expiration as leverage for more substantial reform.
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