A cyber security and consumer protection summit led by US President Obama last month was universally snubbed by movers and shakers in the tech industry.
The meeting, which aimed to align government and corporate thinking on issues of national security, saw the appearance of Apple CEO Tim Cook but Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Larry Page and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer were all noticeable by their absence.
While none of the top tech heads have commented on why they failed to attend the event, it is widely believed that the snub was a form of silent protest over US surveillance techniques, as detailed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden of course had previously revealed how many top tech firms had their email accounts compromised by the US National Security Agency (NSA) under the PRISM program. Snowden claims the NSA collected foreign intelligence from giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, as well as many other leading US technology companies.
During the summit, Obama highlighted the need for improved data security, saying government agencies should work with private companies and there should be a sharing of data between the two.
Can anyone else see a problem with this?
Given how the US and UK governments, among many others, have spread their surveillance nets far and wide to suck up data from wherever they can find it, it is hardly surprising to hear Altimeter Group analyst Susan Etlinger tell The Washington Times (opens in new tab) that it is not in the nature of a business to want to share confidential and proprietary data in such an open manner.
Given Obama said very little about controls for any data shared with the government, it really is quite difficult to see why any company would want to sign up.
After all, CEOs are not going to know how their business data will be stored, who will have access to it, or how it may be used beyond the primary listed aim of sharing threat intelligence.
Beyond that, who would want to do business with a corporation in the US or UK that is known to be sharing data with its government? How would a foreign firm balance the need to trade with such companies against its own data security policies or the privacy laws in its own nation?
It looks like Obama’s plans may struggle to get off the ground, despite the risks posed by the number of data breaches we continue to witness.
While his proposals are theoretically sound, in practice they seem totally unworkable – companies keep business secrets for a reason and they aren’t about to change that to aid a government that already seems to want to know everything about everyone.
That said, it wasn’t a complete washout for the president - Tim Cook said his company would partner with the federal government to push its paperless payment service Apple Pay. The payment system will be integrated into Social Security and veterans’ benefits cards in the future and there are also plans to make it a payment method for entry into national parks.
Even so, Apple still remains a staunch opponent of government surveillance and Cook took the opportunity to speak about the importance of privacy during the summit.