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Policy: Technology

Silicon Valley's rift with Obama: Tech giants push back against NSA spying

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,National Security,PennAve,Surveillance,Technology

So much for the Obama lovefest in Silicon Valley.

After years of being among the president's most high-profile and deepest-pocketed supporters, tech industry titans are now leading the opposition to the administration's controversial surveillance techniques.

President Obama is on the verge of announcing his national security Agency reforms, changes coming at the behest of technology companies that contend that disclosures about spying methods did as much damage to their businesses as they did to the president's reputation.

Those frustrations came to a head last month when industry leaders, such as Google's Eric Schmidt, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Apple's Tim Cook challenged Obama at the White House over the scope and poor oversight of the NSA programs.

The question now becomes: Do the leaders of some of the nation's most influential employers — and major Obama campaign backers — have the pull to force the president's hand or will their complaints go unheard by a commander in chief who insists such practices are essential to national security?

“Perhaps they’re not as influential as I’d like them to be,” Perry Robinson, associate general counsel for Rackspace Hosting, said of the tech leaders. “[Obama’s] not running for reelection.”

Robinson, who recently met with an outside panel appointed by Obama to examine the NSA’s methods, called self-policing the secretive, far-reaching agency an “uphill battle within the administration."

Initial reports suggest the most consequential change Obama is considering is that telecommunications companies, not the government, would store Americans' metadata.

However, Robinson said such a shift would fall well short of the type of overhaul sought by the tech industry, perhaps stoking Silicon Valley’s disillusionment with Obama.

“I don’t think from our perspective that improves things at all,” he said. “Companies don’t want to be in the business of storing that data.”

The tech community's frustrations have grown with the slow drip of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The most serious point of contention, according to those who met with the president, was the NSA’s practice of collecting data from Internet servers without the companies' knowledge.

Said one high-ranking official for a tech company whose leaders attended the White House meeting, “The president really has to win our trust back. I think a lot of people [in the industry] had a come-to-Jesus moment on Obama.”

Such sentiment reflects a dramatic falling out between the president and some of his most ardent supporters. Yet, Obama is relying on the tech community for practical support and to raise money for Democrats — a strategy the president has employed for years.

Obama’s White House campaigns turned to some of the brightest tech minds to implement savvy, data-driven networks unlike anything seen before in presidential politics.

And the president received help from the likes of LinkedIn and Craigslist executives to raise historic amounts of money.

Even amid the uproar, Obama is still turning to tech companies to fix his administration’s most nagging problems.

Obama tapped former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene in recent weeks to take the reins of healthcare.gov from Jeffrey Zients, who will become the president's top economic adviser in coming weeks.

With Obama on the defensive for the problem-plagued online marketplaces, the administration called on Michael Dickerson, a site-reliability engineer on leave from Google, to lead the war-room efforts.

Some Obama supporters argued that talk of a rift between the president and Silicon Valley is overblown.

"There's a reason they keep coming back to the Bay Area for fundraisers," said San Francisco-based Democratic strategist Christopher Lehane, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. "That really is the center of his support. That's never really waned."

The president is in the final stages of internal deliberations about the best path forward for the NSA. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have met both with privacy advocates and members of Congress' intelligence committees.

But it’s the tech community that is most eagerly awaiting his blueprint.

“I don’t think it will be a major overhaul,” Robinson predicted. “I hope I’m wrong.”

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Author:

Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner