Since June, the world has been learning, leak by pilfered document leak, the extent of the U.S. government's cyber-spying operations. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden stole countless numbers of documents that have had the effect of also reducing confidence in U.S. technology vendors as they try and do business abroad.
The tech vendors aren't happy, and they've brought their message to President Barack Obama.
"This was an opportunity for the president to hear from CEOs directly as we near completion of our review of signals intelligence programs, building on the feedback we’ve received from the private sector in recent weeks and months," the White House said in a statement. "The President made clear his belief in an open, free, and innovative Internet and listened to the group's concerns and recommendations, and made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs."
According to multiple reports including one in the The Washington Post about the non-public comments made during the meeting, tech vendors told President Obama that they are losing business because of the spying allegations.
That revelation should not come as a complete surprise, as none other than Cisco CEO John Chambers publicly said during his company's first-quarter fiscal 2014 earnings call that the NSA disclosures were having an impact.
"I think, if you look at it, it is an impact in China. I think we’re all aware of that," Chambers said at the time. "I think it's impacting on the total emerging country business, however, is fairly nominal."
When I've spoken to multiple U.S. cloud vendors in recent months about the business risks associated with the NSA disclosures, the response has always been somewhat muted, with vendors recognizing there is an impact but unwilling to definitively say they're hurting. Apparently, they're willing to tell Obama about the effects on their companies, and in a year when the economy is standing on the precipice of recovery or a return to recession, this is an issue that cannot fall on deaf ears.
Adding to the clamor for surveillance reform is the Dec. 16 U.S. District Court ruling that found that the NSA's efforts might well be unconstitutional.
To be clear, it is my strong personal view that the NSA has a pivotal role to play in defending U.S. national interests against attack, and the Internet should never be a safe haven for terrorists. The NSA should have legal tools available to it so that it can achieve its mission and keep us all safe. That said, it's now clear that the broad surveillance activities undertaken undermine U.S. tech vendor interests, and as such, something must change.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.