Hill, The

Tech industry watching European privacy votes

The tech industry is bracing for an imminent vote at the European Union that could put its business on the continent at risk.

Despite assurances from the US government, some European officials are calling for changes to the rules and agreements that allow US companies to process data belonging to European citizens, in the hopes of keeping that data out of the hands of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The EU Parliament will consider two measures that would affect the way American tech companies do business in Europe. The first is a privacy regulation that would end the Parliament’s role in a two-year process to update, strengthen and make cohesive EU privacy law, heightening privacy and security standards for the companies that deal with European citizens’ data. Once the Parliament approves the regulation, which is the expected outcome of the upcoming vote, the EU legislators have to negotiate over the law with the individual governments of EU countries. The second measure is a report from the body’s Civil Liberties Committee, which opened an investigation into US government surveillance after the revelations about NSA electronic surveillance, including that of European officials. That report made a number of recommendations about US companies’ access to data belonging to European citizens, including the immediate suspension of international agreements between the EU and US that allow US companies to process European data.

[March 10]

Snowden to EU: NSA Spying distracts from real threats

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial sweeping surveillance distracts the agency from real threats, former government contractor Edward Snowden told European lawmakers.

“Suspicionless surveillance not only fails to make us safe, but it actually makes us less safe,” Snowden wrote in testimony to European Union Parliament members. “By squandering precious, limited resources on ‘collecting it all,’ we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators running down real leads,” he said.

Snowden’s testimony is a response to a request from the European lawmakers, who are conducting a review of government surveillance -- including the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs. Snowden pointed to government reports that questioned the efficacy of the mass surveillance programs as a tool to stop terrorist attacks, including a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

[March 7]

Court rejects NSA request to keep data

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has denied the National Security Agency’s (NSA) attempt to hold onto people’s phone records for longer than the law allows. In an order, the court said the Justice Department’s attempt to authorize keeping the records beyond the current five-year legal limit “is simply unpersuasive.” “The Court has not found any case law supporting the government’s broad assertion that its duty to preserve supersedes statutory or regulatory requirements,” Judge Reggie Walton wrote in the court’s decision. [March 7]

Privacy is in our blood, says NSA official

Civil liberties are a top concern at the National Security Agency (NSA), the agency’s new privacy chief said.

“In their blood is [the] protection of your privacy,” Rebecca Richards said. Richards has been the NSA’s privacy and civil liberties officer for a little over a month. The creation of the position was announced in 2013, as the Obama Administration responded to a series of controversial revelations about sweeping US government surveillance. Richards said that her agency is “very compliant” with its own internal privacy protections, along with the safeguards set by policymakers and the courts.

Under Richards’s direction, the NSA is working on a report to document the privacy protections it enforces under each of its surveillance authorities, including Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows for the collection of phone call data. Richards said her next focus will be incorporating privacy protections into the ways the agency collects information and uses new technology. The agency should “build the concept of the [privacy] assessments into the core of what the NSA does,” she said.

Senators urge ban on in-flight calls

Two senators are urging the Department of Transportation to ban in-flight calls to prevent fights from breaking out among passengers.

Sens Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to encourage him to follow through with the ban the Transportation Department proposed in February 2014.

“We strongly support the agency's efforts to preserve the last vestige of quiet in our busy skies,” the senators wrote in the letter. The senators, who introduced the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act in December to ban in-flight calls through legislation, say cellphone conversations could create a “hostile atmosphere” for passengers. They said they worry flight crews might have to referee “senseless disputes” between passengers -- or even force air marshals to reveal their identities to break up physical altercations. “We are concerned that the addition of this entirely avoidable aggravation of a confined space will create a possibly hostile atmosphere on commercial flights,” the senators wrote.

Taking From the poor and giving to the ConnectED

[Commentary] The White House is touting its plan to upgrade Internet connections to schools, and the Federal Communications Commission -- nominally, an independent regulatory agency -- has announced a $2 billion “down payment” using cash from “reserve funds.” Why, one might ask, does the Federal Communications Commission have bigger reserves than a Fortune 500 corporation? The FCC has over a billion dollars, growing fast and burning a hole in its pocket, due to recent “reforms” of the scandal-plagued high-cost portion of the Universal Service Fund (USF).

The program is supposed to extend phone service to outlying areas via the “High Cost Fund,” recently renamed the “Connect America Fund.” Rather than let the program wither, the FCC continued to collect USF taxes, diverting them to a slush fund. In 2012, $560 million poured into it; in 2013 it collected $700 million more. Stunning as it may sound, the money comes largely from low-income telephone users who pay a hefty 16.4 percent tax to make long-distance phone calls the old-fashioned (pre-Skype) way.

“E-Rate” is now called “ConnectEd.” Proponents of increased spending have not presented a shred of evidence that additional spending on the program is worth the cost, and act as if dreamy stories about “ultra broadband” and “technology in the classroom” justify the mission. Yet, while the asserted results are illusory, the costs are real, and the tax that funds it falls disproportionately on low-income consumers. It’s a “soak the poor” scheme that has no justification in law or policy.
[Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University. Wallsten is vice president for Research and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Business and Public Policy]

FCC: ‘No intention’ of muzzling press

The Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) is trying to reassure House Republicans that it has no plans to restrict the freedom of the press. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told Republican leaders of the House Commerce Committee that his commission “has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters.”

Chairman Wheeler defended new FCC research as the first step toward pinpointing “market barriers” that may make affect the “diversity of media voices.” Republicans expressed concern that the FCC's study was an attempt "to control the political speech of journalists” by reviving the Fairness Doctrine, now-extinct rules that required radio and TV broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints on major issues. FCC Commission Ajit Pai raised alarms about the study.

Verizon, T-Mobile to testify on wireless competition

Executives from Verizon and T-Mobile will testify on competition in the wireless market in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition and Consumer Rights. Verizon Executive Vice President Randal Milch and T-Mobile Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Thomas Sugrue will appear.

The hearing is titled "An Examination of Competition in the Wireless Market" and will also include Eric Graham, senior vice president of strategic relations at Cellular South -- or C Spire, the eighth largest wireless company in the country -- and Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, a coalition of wireless companies and advocacy groups.

AT&T: Government data requests top 300K

AT&T received more than 300,000 government requests for user data in 2013, according to the company’s first Transparency Report. The total number of government requests for civil and criminal investigations, 301,816, includes 248,343 subpoenas, 36,788 court orders and 16,685 search warrants, the report said. Of those 301,816 requests, AT&T challenged 3,765 requests and provided partial or no information in response to 13,707 of the requests, the company said. The report also outlined government requests for user data for national security purposes. AT&T received at least 2,000 requests for user data in the form of National Security Letters, affecting at least 4,000 accounts, according to the report.