White House silent during Obama’s ‘open debate’ data privacy workshop

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The debate over data privacy and government surveillance announced during President Obama’s National Security Agency reform speech in January got off to a slow start this week, with White House officials less than engaged in the debate the president called for.

The 90-day federal review of bulk data collection programs conducted by the NSA opened up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday, where executive officials like National Security Agency Director of Compliance John DeLong would argue surveillance with civil liberties advocates like Massachusetts ACLU director Carol Rose.

“Everything’s being done in secret,” Rose said from her seat next to DeLong, according to a Boston Beta report. “But for Edward Snowden, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

DeLong offered no reply to Rose’s or other’s pointed comments, and kept his eyes fixed to the floor until the conversation moved on from the agency he was there to represent.

He wasn’t the only one who steered clear of controversy – U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker gave a speech lightly touching on privacy, and afterward left without fielding any questions. Former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton and current White House counselor John Podesta, who is in charge of the review, repeated the president’s general talking points over the phone from Washington before jumping off.

The session not focused on government surveillance, where experts from Harvard, Koa Labs, MIT and Nielsen discussed the pros and cons of the way private organizations collect and use bulk metadata like online browsing habits and heath information, was the most productive session.

Ideas like letting online users contribute their own data anonymously and encrypted for research purposes, as opposed to having it collected without their knowledge or consent, were tossed around and discussed openly.

The review will continue at other universities, including NYU and Berkeley. Watch all of the first session at MIT here.

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