Tech Giants in the NSA's Crosshairs Converge at White House

PHOTO: President Barack Obama meets with technology executives in Washington, Dec. 17, 2013. From left are, Mark Pincus, founder and Chairman, Zynga; Marissa Mayer, President and CEO, Yahoo!, Obama, and Randall Stephenson, Chairman & CEO, AT&T.
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

After months of tangling publicly with the Obama administration over the government's national security surveillance programs, several tech giants had President Obama's ear at a White House meeting today.

According to one meeting participant, the bulk of the more than two-hour meeting with President Obama and Vice President Biden was devoted to the NSA program.

"We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the President our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform," the tech companies said in a joint emailed statement after the confab.

Of the 15 tech executives who attended, most have publicly urged the government to revise surveillance programs after Edward Snowden revealed earlier this year just how much information the United States collects through their companies.

The meeting also comes a week after top executives from Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL signed a letter calling on the Obama administration and Congress to address the "urgent need" to change government surveillance practices, which the companies say violate the privacy rights of their users.

The discussions also included talk about efforts to fix healthcare.gov, overhaul government information technology and ways tech and government can partner to grow the economy.

In response to the executives' push for greater transparency in the NSA's programs, the White House said that Obama "made clear his belief in an open, free, and innovative internet."

"[The President] made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs," the White House said in a statement.

Here is what the most vocal tech companies have said about the government's spying practices:

PHOTO: Apple CEO Tim Cook holds the new iPad Air during an Apple announcement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 22, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif.
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Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple released a June statement titled, "Apple's Commitment to Customer Privacy," revealing just how many requests the tech company receives from U.S. law enforcement for customer data:

"From December 1, 2012 to May 31, 2013, Apple received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement for customer data. Between 9,000 and 10,000 accounts or devices were specified in those requests, which came from federal, state and local authorities and included both criminal investigations and national security matters. The most common form of request comes from police investigating robberies and other crimes, searching for missing children, trying to locate a patient with Alzheimer's disease, or hoping to prevent a suicide."

The company also addressed accusations of sharing customer data with government agencies, without its users permission.

"We first heard of the government's 'Prism' program when news organizations asked us about it on June 6. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer content must get a court order," Apple said in its June statement.

PHOTO: CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo speaks during The Twitter Seminar as part of Cannes Lions 59th International Festival of Creativity on June 20, 2012 in Cannes, France.
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Dick Costolo, CEO, Twitter

Speaking at a Brookings event in June, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said the social media company has a "principled" policy on national security data requests, and in some cases, pushes back on government requests in order to protect the privacy of its users.

In July, the social media company released a transparency report to "highlight trends we've received for account information, government requests we've received for content removal, and copyright notices."

The company's report also details whether it took action on those requests and reiterates that Twitter is committed to "the open exchange of information."

PHOTO: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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Marissa Mayer, President and CEO, Yahoo

In November, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said, "I want to reiterate what we have said in the past: Yahoo has never given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency," in a post on the company's Tumblr blog.

Yahoo has also made a commitment to encrypt its email service to make it more difficult for unauthorized parties to access and decipher information.

The commitment was announced after a Washington Post report claimed the NSA had been hacking into communication lines run by both Yahoo and Google.

PHOTO: American business executive Sheryl Sandberg attends the Lean In Japanese Edition press conference at Space Nio, July 2, 2013 in Tokyo.
Jun Sato/Getty Images
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

During a "CBS This Morning" interview in October, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg denied reports that the U.S. government had access to the social networking site's information, pointing to the fact that Facebook made public the number of times it had been requested to release user information to governments, with half of the 38,000 requests revealed to be from the United States.

"I think there is a real demand from our citizens for more transparency," Sandberg said, "and we'd like to be more transparent."

PHOTO: Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google Inc., speaks at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Nov. 21, 2013.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was so outraged after the NSA scandal that he considered moving the company's servers out of the United States, he admitted in November during a speech at the Paley International Council Summit in New York.

"There clearly are cases where evil people exist, but you don't have to violate the privacy of every single citizen of America to find them," Schmidt later said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, calling the revelations "outrageous" if they were proven to be true.

Brad Smith, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Microsoft

Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel, Microsoft, wrote on the company's official blog Dec. 5 about protecting its customer's data from "government snooping."

Smith said that the company has "serious concerns about government surveillance on the Internet" and will be taking immediate action to address those concerns in three major areas.

"We are expanding encryption across our services. We are reinforcing legal protections for our customers' data. We are enhancing the transparency of our software code, making it easier for customers to reassure themselves that our products do not contain back doors," Smith wrote on the company's official blog.

In a recent statement, Smith called on the government to revise its surveillance practices. "People won't use technology they don't trust," he said. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

PHOTO: Randall Stephenson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of AT&T Inc., speaks during the first keynote address at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 25, 2013.
Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Randall Stephenson, Chairman & CEO, AT&T

Unlike most of the tech companies present at today's meeting, AT&T has been quiet on its involvement in NSA surveillance programs, and has not urged the government to be more transparent about its data requests.

Company shareholders requested more transparency on the company's involvement after NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents this earlier year showing the company's participation in the government agency's surveillance programs, but AT&T does not want to reveal its involvement.

According to TIME, the company wrote a 32-page letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission, to ensure that the SEC "will take no action if the Company excludes the Proposal from its 2014 Proxy Materials." The telecom company said the annual meeting pertains to "ordinary business operations that are the purview of the company's management and board, not rank and file shareholders."

Erika Rottenberg, Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, Linkedin

LinkedIn VP Erika Rottenberg revealed in a statement in September that the U.S government prohibited the company from making public the number of member data requests that were made when it was related to U.S. national security.

"We believe our members and the LinkedIn community deserve to know this information, especially in light of recent revelations about the nature of U.S. government surveillance," Rottenberg said on the professional network's official blog.

"We've been in discussions with the U.S. government for months in an effort to convince them to allow us to release these numbers as part of our Transparency Report and these discussions recently reached an impasse."

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