Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the agency’s surveillance programs have left Congress stuck between two hugely influential groups: a technology industry that’s long been unhappy about forced cooperation with intelligence operations and an intelligence community that says the work is vital to national security.
For years, technology companies and communications providers have waged a quiet legal campaign for more permission to publish information about the requests for data they receive from the NSA and the FBI. Gag orders often kept them from publicly discussing details of the cases.
Snowden’s leaks changed the landscape.
Now, the scope of information the federal government has been collecting and analyzing is known to the public — and known to potential technology customers at home and abroad. And while U.S. officials have spent a lot of time educating the American public on the privacy protections it applies to U.S. citizens and residents, the Snowden leaks have reminded everyone that those protections are not applied to non-U.S. citizens located outside of the country.
As a result, the leaks have united an industry that is traditionally split over legislative priorities. Now companies are agreeing that better privacy protections from surveillance, or at least less secrecy, would be better for business.
“Congress reacts to outside pressure, and on a lot of issues the industry has been divided, so it’s hard to pass bills,” said Darrell M. West, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation. “But on this issue, a lot of the companies are on the same page. When you have an industry that’s united, it’s easier.”
But Congress is deeply divided on how to proceed on a surveillance overhaul.
Several lawmakers have proposed sweeping packages to curtail the NSA’s work. Others, including Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have called for much more limited measures, and oppose ideas such as the White House review group’s recommendations to leave telephone and Internet metadata in the hands of companies, instead of having the NSA collect them.
Opponents of a large-scale overhaul would also be fine with Congress taking no action, a significant possibility for a hot-button issue in a midterm election year.
The technology lobby is well aware of the difficulties associated with congressional inertia. That’s why associations and companies have been working on multiple fronts, filing lawsuits and bringing their complaints to the executive branch.
When President Barack Obama gives a scheduled address Friday laying out his recommendations for how to change the NSA’s surveillance programs, West said he expects that the speech could involve new orders for the agency to provide increased privacy protections for noncitizens and allow companies to talk more publicly about data access.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.