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Obama: Snowden Revelations Undermined Tech's Trust in Government

"Our capacities to scoop up information became so great."

Vjeran Pavic

Silicon Valley doesn’t seem to love President Barack Obama the way it used to, he readily admitted in an interview with Re/code’s Kara Swisher* on Friday, after a cybersecurity summit at Stanford that companies including Google, Facebook and Yahoo declined to attend.

“The Snowden disclosures were really harmful in terms of the trust between the government and many of these companies, in part because it had an impact on their bottom lines,” Obama said.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released a massive trove of internal government documents beginning in 2013, which among other things revealed a secret surveillance program to suck user data from tech companies called PRISM.

Obama acknowledged that the NSA had done too much to gather intelligence internationally, and that its actions had harmed Silicon Valley’s ability to compete in countries where people are concerned that using their services means being spied on.

In his discussion with Swisher, Obama paid more attention to the business case than the civil liberties aspect of the American government’s widespread online surveillance.

By contrast, tech companies have framed privacy and transparency reforms mostly as a consumer protection issue. It’s still unclear how complicit they were, and they are not allowed to say.

“When you look back at what we’ve done, I have constantly tried to update the laws and rules governing how we operate in cyberspace with these new technologies,” Obama said. “In the case of the NSA, we were probably a little slow. What we did with respect to U.S. persons, what we did in this country, was strictly circumscribed. Generally speaking, I can say with almost complete confidence, that there haven’t been abuses on U.S. soil.”

“It’s a global internet world, and there are businesses,” Swisher interjected.

“And that’s been the challenge,” Obama replied. “What is true is — and I’ve said this publicly, so I’m not saying anything that’s classified in any way — our capacities to scoop up information became so great, and traditionally there haven’t been any restraints on our intelligence community scooping up information from outside our borders and non-U.S. persons. So what ended up happening is in places like Germany, this had a huge impact not just on government-to-government relationships, but [business relationships].”

Obama concluded, “I think we have made real progress in narrowing the differences between the national security-privacy balance. There are still some issues like encryption that are challenging.”

For more on the encryption rift, see that portion of the interview.

* Kara Swisher is married to but separated from Megan Smith, chief technology officer for the Obama Administration. See her ethics statement here.

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