WASHINGTON — Telecommunications and technology firms on Friday expressed disappointment that President Barack Obama’s promises to reform government surveillance wouldn’t significantly curtail the government’s broad powers to collect Internet and phone data.
Phone companies said they feared that the centerpiece reform – changes to how the government collects bulk phone metadata – would simply shift the collection and storage of that information to them. Obama said a third party would collect and store phone metadata that would be accessed by government intelligence officials on a more limited basis.
But telecom companies said they don’t want to keep information for the National Security Agency. Doing so would make them the target of a public uproar over privacy and could open them up to lawsuits. The costs of collecting and maintaining data are also significant, and they fear that the perception of working more closely with the NSA would harm their brands, officials at telecom firms said.
“This would make us a target. It doesn’t end the program but puts it on us,” said a telecom industry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In a statement, the lobbying group CTIA-The Wireless Association stressed that it believed security and privacy can be achieved “without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.”
In his speech, Obama also promised to stop surveillance of foreign leaders, and he said he would assign an outside public advocate to the secretive FISA court that approves data demands for the NSA.
Technology firms including Microsoft, Google and Facebook said in a joint statement that the commitments outlined by Obama “represent positive progress.”
But the firms added that “crucial details remain to be addressed.”
“We’re disappointed he did not completely halt the collection and analysis of bulk metadata. We would have liked him to have followed the lead of his appointed review group and call for … changes to the ways in which the NSA can access Americans’ content without a warrant,” said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook as members.
Officials at high-tech firms also expressed concern that the president’s plan keeps a door open for broad surveillance of Internet data.
The administration has acknowledged that it ran a program of Internet metadata collection – gathering times and dates of emails, among other information – but dropped it in 2011 when it did not prove operationally feasible.
“We believe that governments should limit surveillance to specific, known individuals, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications. It does not appear that the president is headed in this direction,” said an official at a technology company who spoke on the condition of anonymity.