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US Commerce Department is advising the president on NSA spying reform

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Penny Pritzker, Commerce Secretary (credit: US Commerce Department/Flickr)
Penny Pritzker, Commerce Secretary (credit: US Commerce Department/Flickr)

American tech companies whose customers and networks have been compromised by the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance efforts may have a new sympathetic ear inside Washington: the Commerce Department. "We've been talking to various constituencies within the business community, we understand their issues [with NSA spying]," said US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, speaking today at CES 2014 in Las Vegas, the first Commerce Secretary to do an open Q&A at the gadget conference. Pritzker also said that her division is "part of the conversation" going on now inside the White House about reviewing the NSA's surveillance powers. "We very much have a voice at the table," Pritzker added, saying that President Obama "would make something public shortly."

"We very much have a voice at the table."

Prtizker didn't elaborate on what specific reforms to NSA spying the president was leaning towards, but the one major reform recommended by the review panel — ending bulk collection of Americans' mobile phone records, which includes numbers called, dates, and times — isn't likely to happen anytime soon. That's because the NSA just won court approval to keep collecting all that metadata for the next 90 days.

But Prtizker did say that there needed to be a balance between security and privacy, and that the White House was even considering quantifying the economic impact surveillance might have on businesses. "Inserting a cost-benefit analysis into the process is one of the things that's being considered," Pritzker told the panel attendees. "The president asked for a national conversation on the subject, and we're having it." Analysts have suggested that the US economy could see anywhere between $35 and $180 billion in losses to cloud-based companies by 2016 from concerns about NSA spying.

"there's an enormous window ... to get immigration reform done."

Pritzker didn't address concerns that the National Institute for the Standards of Technology (NIST), a Commerce Department agency that sets the country's cryptography standards, may have deliberately left standards weak to allow for NSA spying. But during her wide-ranging talk, Pritzker also addressed a number of tech community hot-button issues. She came out strongly in support of reforming the country's immigration system to allow for more "high skilled" workers in science and tech, saying "there's an enormous window in the first half of this year to get immigration reform done." To that end, Pritzker called upon the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to move forward with a reform bill (the Senate passed its own immigration bill last year). Pritzker also told the audience that the Commerce Department was "trying to improve your ability to get your patents" by opening satellite patent offices around the country.

Pritzker's talk wasn't all about serious government issues, though. She said she had time to walk the showroom floor and gushed about Qualcomm's UltraSound NotePad, a concept stylus that transfers a person's paper writing to a tablet in real-time. Pritzker's family founded the Hyatt chain of hotels and she's one of the wealthiest women in the US. She was confirmed as the 38th commerce secretary in June, 2013.