Google VP: 'Pendulum Has Swung Too Far Toward Secrecy'

The heads of eight major technology companies — including Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — have published an open letter to President Obama calling for reforms to government surveillance programs. Audie Cornish speaks with David Drummond, chief legal officer for Google.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We begin today with All Tech Considered and the top tech news of the day. Eight major technology companies are calling on President Obama to reform government surveillance programs. Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are among the authors of an open letter to the president.

CORNISH: The letter does not mention Edward Snowden or the NSA by name, but it says, quote, "This summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual."

BLOCK: The companies laid out some major principles. Those include limits on government authority to collect user information, oversight and accountability of surveillance programs, and transparency about government demands for information.

CORNISH: I spoke today with David Drummond, the chief legal officer for Google. I asked him exactly what kind of limits Google and its co-authors would like to see on government surveillance.

DAVID DRUMMOND: The government, somewhat unbeknownst to the public, were taking the view that all communications were relevant to a particular investigation, and that sort of stands on its head what we normally think about with investigations, is that you have some kind of individualized suspicion and that you go after things more narrowly.

So I think what we're talking about is this sort of bulk collection without narrowing it to what you're actually looking for. We believe that that should be curtailed.

CORNISH: So in the letter you're essentially saying that if government wants a specific piece of data, you want a name. You want them to ask you about a specific person, not just ask for the whole data set.

DRUMMOND: That's right. And that there be a process that everybody knows about, that's open. And in the private sector, we're actually - we're very transparent about what we do. We are limited by laws that everybody understands. When people challenge our practices, we go into court. It's an open court. Everybody knows what's going on.

I think you've got a system, the structure in the government surveillance case is very different, where things are done in secret and no one really knows what the rules are. So we think it needs to swing, that pendulum, back to the middle.

CORNISH: In the letter, you also talk about transparency. What do you mean by that? What exactly would that look like?

DRUMMOND: Well, I think one of the biggest problems with all of this has been that the - sort of the interpretations of the rules, the applications of the rules, all of that has been done in secret. If we get requests from the government, I think users have a right to know what the companies are doing. And we try to do that as much as we possibly can.

We're just limited by the current rules that say that we can't talk about some of these requests.

CORNISH: Now, what's your response then to agencies who say, well, there are security concerns here. We don't want people to know when we're looking for them.

DRUMMOND: Well, we understand that there has to be a balance here between security and the integrity of investigations and civil liberties. Our view is that the pendulum has swung too far towards secrecy. Some of the reports about bulk collection, a lot of those things were surprising to most people, and I think had there been more of an open debate, I think we could've avoided some of these problems.

CORNISH: But there are privacy advocates who say that, you know, after years of cooperating with governments on surveillance, this is now mostly a concern because it's affecting your bottom line.

DRUMMOND: Look, there's no question that this is about protecting our user's data and protecting our user's data is core to our businesses. So we're not going - no one is suggesting that this - that, you know, we don't care deeply about our businesses. But it's a broader question about trust in communications networks, about trust in the Internet, and that affects not just our companies, but all of society as we move deeper and deeper into this digital world.

CORNISH: The other concern here by privacy advocates is that they've long called for tech firms to dial back how much data you're holding onto and they're saying that companies essentially put users at risk, made them vulnerable to things like this government surveillance because of the broad data collection that you do.

DRUMMOND: You know, collecting the data, we do that...

CORNISH: Entertaining it, I should say, right?

DRUMMOND: Sure. And we do that - sure, we do that too. If you look at the case of email, you know, back in the early 2000s, you know, people really loved the convenience of Web mail. But it was - you couldn't store very much of it and so, you know, what we've done and the other Web firms have done is provide, you know, email that has lots and lots of storage because people actually want to keep those things.

And as more things move into the cloud, people want the ability to store things for a long time. So I think the question is, you know, how we do that for users, how we make sure that it's transparent to them, how we make sure that they can delete things when they need to and so forth.

CORNISH: What are your options if the U.S. doesn't take what you'd consider sufficient action? Does this mean you'd virtually start refusing more information requests or make more technical changes, encryption and such, to thwart government spying?

DRUMMOND: Well, we're hopeful that the process will yield some reform. We have taken many, many steps, as I think we've been very public about, to encrypt our networks to make sure that we are protecting, doing everything we possibly can to protect our user data, and we'll continue to do all of those things. But we're very hopeful that we'll be able to have a set of reforms and that the U.S. will be able to lead the way with other governments.

CORNISH: Well, what's your response to people who wonder if this is believable, given the history that, say, Google in particular has in terms of personal information? For instance, people looking at this multimillion dollar fine Google's had to pay to resolve legal trouble for scooping up private data. This was through the Google street view vehicles. But there is some lack of trust there in the public that doesn't have to do with the NSA.

DRUMMOND: Well, we'd be the first to say that we've made this fix. I think, on balance, we've done a very, very, very good job in protecting our user data and we believe our users trust us. We're happy about that. We believe we continue to build great products for our users. I don't think the fact that we've made, you know, made mistakes - and, again, we've very transparent about what we do.

You know, we tell users what we're up to and when we make a mistake, we say it and we own up to it. And I don't think that prevents us from taking a strong position here. And I think it's good for our - it's right for the companies to take a stand here and add our voices to the voices for reform.

CORNISH: David Drummond, he's senior vice president for corporate development and chief legal officer at Google. Thank you for speaking with us.

DRUMMOND: Well, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: We were discussing the open letter from eight tech companies to President Obama demanding reforms to government surveillance programs, and we'll be taking a closer look at the issues around technology and privacy in the days and weeks to come.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.