A White House meeting meant to get technology executives' recommendations on Healthcare.gov was pushed towards a debate over surveillance, The Guardian reports. Sources from the meeting, which included Apple's Tim Cook, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Google's Eric Schmidt among others, say that the White House declared it would focus on the insurance site. "That is not going to happen," one executive reportedly responded. "We are there to talk about the NSA."
"We are there to talk about the NSA."
This declaration is in line with previous attempts to force the Obama administration's hand on intelligence community reform: Yahoo, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and more have filed lawsuits or supporting briefs against NSA surveillance, and last week, a tech company coalition released an open letter to the White House calling for change.
Still, Obama tried to start the meeting on a light note with some topical humor, asking Hastings about the upcoming second season of the hit Netflix political thriller series House of Cards: "I’m just wondering if Reed brought advance copies of House of Cards?" Obama said. Hastings jokingly responded "we'll fix you up a cameo." Obama continued, expressing admiration for the series' malevolent antihero Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey: "I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient. It's true, I was looking at Kevin Spacey and I was thinking: 'this guy's getting a lot of stuff done.'"
What hasn't been made public yet is exactly how President Obama responded to surveillance concerns during the meeting, or what was specifically discussed. Absent details, the meeting is primarily good company PR and a push for the administration to speed reform. In a release after the fact, the White House said that it "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."
"I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient."
A statement from the companies involved, meanwhile, said that "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." But the administration so far hasn't gone much further than promising increased transparency and reform, though it's moved forward on declassifying documents that provide a window into the NSA's operations. The biggest news to come out of the meeting, meanwhile, was that former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene is stepping up as the new manager of Healthcare.gov.
By the end of the year, the Obama administration and an external review panel will have concluded investigations into how the NSA and other intelligence agencies can be reformed without sacrificing national security interests. While the panel's report has not been declassified, it reportedly recommends dismantling the NSA's phone record database and requiring it to request more specific metadata from third parties, a measure that has also been proposed in Congress. And the metadata program now faces a legal challenge after a federal judge declared it was likely unconstitutional and ordered the NSA to remove metadata from two plaintiffs (though this decision was put on hold pending an appeal.)
For AT&T, one of the companies represented at the meeting, this could create real change in how it provides information about users to the government. For Netflix, Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook, or any other companies at the meeting, however, this decision will be immaterial in the short term, as it specifically addresses phone records rather than email or other online communications. Instead, these companies have asked for a clear legal framework to bind intelligence agencies, the option to reveal how many requests for information the government has sent, and "sensible limitations" on collecting user information, including an end to databases that aggregate material from people not apparently connected to any crime.