Wyden: Surveillance is a ‘Clear and Present Danger’ to the Digital Economy

The pervasive dragnet surveillance of Americans revealed by the Edward Snowden documents has caused serious damage to the trust that enterprises and citizens had in the United States government and unless that trust is repaired, it could have serious effects on the Internet economy, a panel of prominent technology executives said.

In a town hall meeting conducted by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Wednesday, lawyers and executives from Dropbox, Google, Microsoft and Facebook discussed the fallout from the Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance and the effects the leaks have had on the digital economy. Wyden, who has been a vocal critic of the NSA and has advocated for laws that would place more restrictions on government surveillance, said that the revelations of the last 18 months have dealt a major blow to both the credibility of the federal government and the trust that users have in some technology companies and services.

“There is a clear and present danger to the Internet economy,” Wyden said.

“There is a clear and present danger to the Internet economy,” Wyden said.”I intend to respond to it.”

Wyden said that the USA Freedom Act, which is pending in Congress right now and seeks to reign in some of the surveillance that’s been revealed of late, is a good step in the right direction.

“The reality is we can pass a good bill by the end of the year. I would like to pass that backdoor search loophole,” he said. “The bill makes a lot of progress as it’s written now. It’s very important that this is addressed between now and the end of the year.”

Outside of legislative remedies, the executives on the panel said that in order to fix some of the damage done by the NSA revelations the government must provide some reasons for consumers to once again trust it.

“It starts with rebuilding that trust at home,” said Ramsey Homsany, general counsel at Dropbox. “The United States at the government level needs to lead again. Start repairing the trust that’s been damaged. The trust element is extremely insidious. We have built this incredible economic engine in this region and trust is the one thing that starts to rot it from the inside out. I think this is serious.”

Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft, agreed, saying that consumers need to have assurances that the companies they entrust with their data aren’t simply handing it over to the government without cause.

“There’s way more work ahead of us than behind us. It’s imperative that we sustain people’s trust,” Smith said. “One step is more transparency. You let people know what’s being done and what’s not. The second step is you go back to the fundamental rights that are at stake. If you’re a consumer, you own all the content you create. You are entitled to the legal protection under our Constitution and laws. We will not rebuild trust until our government starts to act.”

The panel also took on the topic of device encryption, something that’s been in the news quite a bit lately thanks to moves by Apple and Google to provide a new encryption system on their mobile devices. Both iOS and Android now have crypto systems that can encrypt the contents of a device with a key that is not available to the vendor. That means that the companies can’t decrypt the contents, even when presented with a warrant or court order. Government and law enforcement representatives have criticized the changes, saying that they will make iPhones and Android devices safe havens for criminals.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, said that the changes should have come as no surprise to law enforcement and government agencies, given the events of the last couple of years.

“The people who are criticizing this should’ve expected this. After Google was attacked by the British version of the NSA we were annoyed to no end,” Schmidt said. “We put in encryption end to end, at rest and in transit. Law enforcement has many many ways to get this information without doing this.”

After the details of Apple’s and Google’s encryption changes became public, some in the law enforcement community have suggested that the companies should include a backdoor in their devices. Both Wyden and Schmidt dismissed this suggestion out of hand.

“U.S. companies shouldn’t be forced to build backdoors into their products,” Wyden said.

One of the results of the Snowden leaks has been that several large tech companies have moved aggressively toward encryption more of their services. This makes life more difficult for adversaries looking to intercept communications, and the executives on the panel said they expect that trend to continue.

“I’d be very surprised if anybody in the industry took their foot of the pedal in terms of building security in,” said Colin Stretch, general counsel at Facebook.

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