Obama talks spying with Facebook's Zuckerberg, Google's Schmidt

Zuckerberg and Obama "had an honest talk about government intrusion on the Internet," says Facebook -- just days after the CEO posted an indignant statement on his Facebook page.

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President Obama during his January 17 NSA reform speech. Whitehouse.gov live stream/Screenshot by CNET

As expected, President Obama met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and other tech executives Friday afternoon to discuss efforts to reform the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs.

"The President used this opportunity to update the CEOs on our progress in implementing the principles and reforms he announced on January 17, including the new Presidential Directive he issued to govern our intelligence activities that will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances, our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of our companies, and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties," the White House said in a statement provided to various media outlets. "The President reiterated his Administration's commitment to taking steps that can give people greater confidence that their rights are being protected while preserving important tools that keep us safe."

The meeting comes just a few days after The Intercept reported that the NSA had masqueraded as a Facebook server to place spy malware on targeted computers and gain access to data stored on hard drives (the NSA responded by saying, "NSA does not use its technical capabilities to impersonate US company Web sites").

The day after the report, Zuckerberg phoned Obama and posted a note about the call on his Facebook page, writing, "I've been so confused and frustrated by the repeated reports of the behavior of the US government. When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we're protecting you against criminals, not our own government."

Facebook said in a statement Friday that at that day's White House meeting Zuckerberg and Obama "had an honest talk about government intrusion on the Internet and the toll it is taking on people's confidence in a free and open Internet," adding that "while the US Government has taken helpful steps to reform its surveillance practices, these are simply not enough. People around the globe deserve to know that their information is secure and Facebook will keep urging the US Government to be more transparent about its practices and more protective of civil liberties."

The Intercept story was not the first report of the NSA posing as a prominent Web site in order to spy. Last September, a Brazilian news story said the agency had disguised itself as Google. And there was also a Washington Post report, in October, that the NSA had secretly tapped into the private fiber-optic networks that connect Google's and Yahoo's worldwide data centers, allowing the spy agency to suck up "at will" metadata and content belonging to users of the companies' services.

The latter report seemed to be what pushed tech companies to move beyond simply calling for transparency in regard to government requests for user data, and to begin pushing for reform of the NSA's practices.

In December, a group of tech heavy hitters including Apple's Tim Cook, Google's Schmidt, and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer hijacked the agenda of a White House meeting with Obama, shifting the emphasis from fixing Healthcare.gov to fixing the NSA. (This in-person push for reform followed a campaign earlier in the month that included full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.)

In the January 17 NSA reform speech referenced by today's White House statement, Obama addressed some issues but said others, including the NSA's use of hacking exploits and its efforts to crack encryption, would be studied further in order to determine what sorts of reforms could be put in place without jeopardizing national security. He gave the groups charged with those investigations till March 28 to put together proposals.

Other CEOs at the Friday meeting included Drew Houston of Dropbox, Alexander Karp of Palantir Technologies, and Aaron Levie of Box, according to Recode, which added that Yahoo's Mayer and Microsoft's Satya Nadella where unable to change their schedules in time to attend.

 

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