by Mark MacCarthy

Surveillance reform is imperative for the U.S. tech industry

May 20, 20154 mins

Congress needs to pass the USA Freedom Act now to head off disaster for the U.S. tech sector

At the heart of every recent national security debate — including the one going on now in Washington — is a question of privacy. Are privacy and national security mutually exclusive? Do we have to give up one to get the other?

The reality is that protecting our security and our private information are different, but complementary goals. We can have both, and as Congress considers surveillance reform, its ability to pass legislation that achieves both will have a far-reaching impact on the U.S. technology industry and our economy.

The U.S. tech sector has a strong history of providing responsible data stewardship and the highest levels of information security and accountability. Companies design privacy and security into their products and services, provide extraordinary technical performance, and offer the most advanced IT software and hardware in the world.

And because of this, people from around the world have entrusted these companies with their personal data. They’ve done so with the reasonable expectation that their information will be protected from unauthorized disclosures, used only for specified purposes, and only disclosed for law enforcement and national security purposes after a proper showing of need and due process of law. 

In the wake of revelations regarding the level of U.S. government access to personal data held by U.S. technology companies, however, many domestic and foreign users have turned away from these companies. Once the beacon of reliability and security, they are now under suspicion of not being able to guarantee the integrity of their own products and services.  

Congress recognized this growing problem in drafting the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill that protects national security and restores trust through strong privacy protections. The House of Representatives passed the bill by an overwhelming four-to-one vote last week. With the expiration of the current law at the end of May, and a Court of Appeals ruling that the current program is illegal, the Senate must quickly do the same.

If it doesn’t, we will continue to see a loss of contracts for U.S. businesses, declining market share, and an uncertain future for the entire tech sector. It’s an ominous sign for U.S. tech companies when large swaths of potential customers seek ways to avoid them or only consider them when there is no acceptable alternative.

In addition, many foreign jurisdictions, such as China, Russia, India, and Vietnam, are implementing or exploring exclusionary policies that threaten the free flow of information across borders and the ability of U.S. companies to compete fairly abroad. They justify these discriminatory policies by pointing to the unrestricted nature of our current surveillance program.

The Senate can change this dangerous dynamic by passing the USA Freedom Act. The bill allows for both strong national security information gathering to keep the nation safe and secure, while ensuring robust privacy protections to keep the government from unnecessarily prying into the private lives of those who are not suspected of wrongdoing.

It unambiguously ends the indiscriminate collection of bulk data. Agencies would be allowed to collect phone and business records when there is a reasonable suspicion that the search is associated with a foreign power engaged in terrorism, but the government could not collect bulk information, for instance, by state, city, or ZIP codes. 

Importantly, as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said in an op-ed on the eve of the House vote, the bill “…increases the transparency and oversight of our intelligence community.” It does so by requiring the declassification of all significant court opinions, providing the public with detailed information about how security agencies use their authority, and allowing for robust transparency reporting by technology companies.

Continuing the status quo by simply reauthorizing the existing law is not reasonable if we expect to turn the tide on the growing international bias against American tech companies and products. Genuine, and expedited, reform is needed to restore trust and avoid a disaster for the U.S. tech industry and our economy. No more kicking the can down the road. Senators understand our nation’s privacy imperative, now they simply must act.