How Microsoft’s top lawyer would keep the NSA in check

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Microsoft Executive Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene and ACLU National Legislative Counsel Gabe Rottman speak at a UW School of Law event Tuesday.

In light of last year’s NSA revelations and more recently the Heartbleed security breach, how government balances the protection of personal information and national security has been a hot topic. This dilemma was the focus of an event at the University of Washington School of Law Tuesday morning, where experts from both the tech industry and government shared their thoughts.

Microsoft Executive Vice President General Counsel Brad Smith, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene and ACLU National Legislative Counsel Gabe Rottman participated in the 90-minute talk, which featured a robust discussion about the climate of the privacy problems in both the U.S. and abroad.  

NSA headquarters

NSA headquarters

Smith, who became Microsoft’s General Counsel in 2002, outlined three things that he’d like to see happen in terms of improving the way the U.S handles personal information.

The first, he said, is that the country needs to reform public policy and specifically pass something like the USA Freedom Act, which would curtail the ability of the NSA to collection private information on citizens.

“Part of that is ending bulk collection of data, part of that is having the government obtain information only pursuant to the rule of law and only based on probable cause,” Smith said.

He added: “We should continue as a matter of public policy to increase transparency, so people both know what the government is doing and know what information in general that companies are providing to the government.”

Second, Smith said that companies need to take new steps in light of everything that has happened in the past year. He noted how Microsoft has increased encryption to protect against hacking of data outside of legal process, and how the company will now resist government subpoenas for data from an enterprise account.

Lastly, Smith said that there needs to be changes with international privacy agreements.

Suzan DelBene. Photo via Wikipedia

Suzan DelBene. Photo via Wikipedia

“If data is going to flow across borders, and law enforcement is going to work in a responsible and effective way within a true legal framework, it’s going to require a certain modernization of the way legal processes work across countries,” he said. 

DelBene, a member of the House Judiciary Committee and an original co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act, echoed Smith’s opinions on ending bulk data collection and creating more transparency. She also recommended having a public advocate in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts.

“That’s important so that someone is actually arguing the other side and being the public advocate for whether or not information really needs to be supplied,” said Delbene, a former Microsoft manager.

Delbene added that “government has not been good about being good stewards of policy.”

“Policy gets out of date,” she said. “We need to learn what’s working and what’s not working. This is a very important area where it will be important to keep policy up to date so as we see issues come up and privacy not being protected, that we address that right away.”

You can listen to the entire discussion here:

  • Emily

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  • panacheart

    It is Congress that has failed us, not the NSA or the president. The reason the NSA has been able to violate our rights en masse is because Congress has continued to fund them. Congress has allowed funding without oversight. Congress has allowed the president to expand “executive powers” which bypass legal review and checks and balances. It’s Congress that passed the Patriot Act, twice. It’s Congress who has allowed the use of the Espionage act in times of peace as a political weapon.

    We keep blaming presidents, like Bush and our current mini Bush, but presidents come and go. They have term limits. Not so for Congress. They keep raking in huge lobbyist dollars and pass legislation, or not, that has led to the NSA we have now. All of which makes it abundantly clear that Congress no longer works for the people, if it ever did. Clearly Congress and “the people” are at great odds, and the breakdown in democracy, the loss of privacy, and the destruction of the middle class and increasing wealth disparity starts and ends with Congress.