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No talk of changing NSA spy tactics at meeting of new surveillance review panel - report

Published time: September 12, 2013 23:24
View of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland.(AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards)

View of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland.(AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards)

A new review panel created by President Barack Obama to analyze possible reforms for US government surveillance spoke mainly of tech companies concerns, not National Security Agency spying overreach, during its first meeting.

Attendees of the meeting early this week told the Guardian newspaper discussions were mostly based around the apprehensions and interests of major technology firms. Little about public privacy or real changes to the mass global phone and internet data collection programs was involved.

During the meeting, outside attendees were divided into rights organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo. The two groups met in separate locations. Two panelists, Michael Morrell and Richard Clarke, with intelligence backgrounds did not attend the civil liberties meeting. All five panelists attended the tech company session.

Robert Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation attended the meeting and told the Guardian he "did not hear much discussion" of transforming how the NSA collects data from around the world, including America.

"I didn't find anyone saying the bulk surveillance is horrendous and bad for our democracy,” said Sascha Meinrath, a vice president of the New America Foundation and the director of the Open Technology Institute, who also attended. “The companies are concerned that it impacts their bottom line. My concern is they're looking to preserve the function of the NSA.”

When asked if that was the perspective of the government or the companies, he responded, "I'm not sure you can separate the two."

Meinrath said the 90-minute meeting was dominated by tech unease about perceptions of their cooperation with the NSA and that business may suffer for the association, especially since the government has forbidden the companies from revealing certain details about the relationship.

Some Internet firms have filed legal action in efforts to share more information about the nature of their work with the US government. Meinrath said they wished to express to the public the amount of coercion involved in the spying programs.

In addition to Meinrath and Atkinson, other outside attendees at the meeting included Alan Davidson of MIT and representatives of the Information Technology Industry Council, Rackspace, and the Software and Information Industry Association.

The panel -- the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology -- was formed to review NSA spying programs following revelations made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The panel is to keep in contact with the White House to possibly recommend reforms to “make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used,” as Obama described the group when he first announced its intentions on Aug. 9.

Later in August, the White House filled out the panel with five men who all had close ties to the intelligence community or the Obama administration: Morrell, former CIA deputy director; Clarke, former counterterror adviser to multiple presidents; Cass Sunstein, former Obama White House staffer; Peter Swire, former aide to Obama and President Bill Clinton; and Geoffrey Stone, Chicago Law professor who is close personally with Obama.

Attendees said the tech representatives -- only identified in the meeting by their companies and not their names, Meinrath said -- also expressed being disturbed by the NSA’s undermining of encryption standards around the web.

"There was one discussion about how the NSA has been involved in the global encryption community, [to] develop better standards. The NSA won't be welcomed anymore in these conversations," Atkinson said of what seemed to be a new distrust coming from the companies.

Meinrath said once the conversation seemed to steer toward talk of surveillance reform, attendees and panel members hesitated to move forward, suggesting a classified meeting.

Panel findings are due to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in October, who will pass on recommendations to Obama. Final propositions are due for announcement in December.

"My fear is it's a simulacrum of meaningful reform," said Meinrath. "Its function is to bleed off pressure, without getting to the meaningful reform."

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