Surveillance Controversy: NSA Versus Tech Companies

National Security Agency officials say their relations with tech companies have been strained by the news of the agency's surveillance programs. Tech fortunes rest on the ability to keep their users' data secure, but the NSA wants access to that data.

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President Obama is expected to announce Friday how he wants to reform surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. Those previously secret programs were exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. American technology companies are among those pushing hardest for change. Having been caught up in the surveillance controversy, they are braced for battle. NPR's Tom Gjelten dubs that battle the NSA versus the techs.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Here's the conflict. Technology companies want to protect their users' data, so they encrypt it, using secret codes, so snoopers can't read it. But the NSA wants access to that data, to keep track of people who threaten U.S. security. If the data's encrypted, the NSA will want to break the encryption. The result: a race between the techs' efforts to encrypt and the NSA's efforts to decrypt. And both sides think the other is ahead in this technology competition.

In an interview last fall, NSA chief information officer, Lonny Anderson, told NPR the tech companies have the research advantage.

LONNY ANDERSON: As a matter of fact, IBM spends more on research than our budget. Cisco spends more on research. Intel spends more on research, Google, Amazon - you pick all those companies. They spend more on just research, what they're doing next, than our entire budget.

GJELTEN: So you don't want to get in an arms race with them.

ANDERSON: We won't win. We can't win.

GJELTEN: The tech companies, on the other hand, say whatever little advantage they may have is offset by the NSA having all the authority of the U.S. government behind it.

James Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts his money on the NSA in this race.

JAMES LEWIS: NSA has been in the business a long time. They've got 300 of the best mathematicians in the world. They've got the world's most powerful computer. Hmm, that's a hard hand to beat.

GJELTEN: Lewis says the tech companies actually thought they were holding their own in this competition, until recently. When Edward Snowden disclosed that the NSA had managed to undermine the companies' secret codes, he says, they were shocked.

LEWIS: You know, companies assumed that they were the ones who were the tech wizards and the government was sort of bumbling. That whole world view has been stood on its head.

GJELTEN: At stake here, is the entire tech business model. Customers use these companies only if they think the data they share with the companies will be kept private. But now people hear the NSA can break the companies' encryption. Plus, it turns out some companies have been secretly ordered to share data with the NSA. When customers no longer trust the companies, they're less inclined to do business with them.

Next month, the tech security firm RSA holds its big annual conference. Tech industry analyst Richard Stiennon says the NSA-tech conflict will get a lot of attention.

RICHARD STIENNON: The NSA's encroachments on our security technologies should be the number one topic. That should be the theme. And I think that's actually going to be the case. Everybody will be discussing how to technologically thwart the sorts of things the NSA is doing and what position the industry should take.

GJELTEN: Of course, there's only so much the tech industry can do. Allan Friedman, a senior cyber security fellow at George Washington University, says it's up to the U.S. government to be more transparent in its surveillance.

ALLAN FRIEDMAN: We want to move from an environment which really feeds the conspiracy theories: The NSA is reading everything we do, to an environment where it's, OK, there is law enforcement but we trust that it's not being abused.'

GJELTEN: The tech companies in this case would be able to give their customers a better idea of when and why they do work with the NSA.

FRIEDMAN: It would allow them to say: Listen, we're cooperating but we don't cooperate that much - we only do it for bad guys.'

GJELTEN: NSA leaders are moving to address their issues with the tech companies. In an interview last week with NPR's MORNING EDITION, the agency's outgoing deputy, Chris Inglis, acknowledged that relations with the companies have been strained, in his words, and need to be repaired.

CHRIS INGLIS: As those companies have been described as being inappropriately in collusion with various governments, not least of which this government, they've taken some, I think, unfair hits. I think when you look into it, those companies are responsible. They're a source of benefit to anyone who would avail themselves of their services. And they therefore deserve to have the record set straight.

GJELTEN: President Obama has not yet signaled how he'd change NSA surveillance programs, but officials say he is likely to say they should operate more openly.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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