Some tech firms say Obama's surveillance plan is thin on details

Companies like Mozilla, Google and Facebook wanted more answers in the president's speech

The tech industry gave a mixed reaction Friday to President Obama's proposed government surveillance reforms, with some saying his plan for curtailing abuse left either glossed-over details or was unclear.

The president on Friday proposed a series of reforms to the National Security Agency's surveillance methods, as part of an effort to strike a better balance between privacy and national security.

"We're concerned that the President didn't address the most glaring reform needs," Mozilla said in a statement.

The Firefox browser maker raised a point made by others: Although the plans include assigning new privacy advocates to a surveillance court, and a shift away from the NSA's bulk-phone-records-collection program, they fall short of recommendations made by Obama's own review panel.

Some of the elements missing, Mozilla said, are adequate protections for the rights of foreigners and information about what the priorities will be of the next director of the NSA. It was revealed in October that NSA chief Keith Alexander would be stepping down.

"The President took several steps toward reforming NSA surveillance but there's still a long way to go," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group, in a statement.

One of the issues the EFF wanted more clarity on was how President Obama would address all bulk surveillance -- not just phone records like the length of calls and numbers dialed, but their content too.

Still others lamented the fact that the president's speech made no mention of encryption tools that could be used to keep people's digital data safe from government's prying eyes.

The group Reform Government Surveillance, whose members include Facebook, Google and Microsoft, said Obama's proposals represented progress on issues like government transparency and what companies will be allowed to disclose, and reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

But "crucial details remain to be addressed on these issues, and additional steps are needed on other important issues," the group said.

A looming question is whether carriers might be required to hold onto more phone record metadata that could be tapped by the government with court approval. AT&T declined to comment on how such a scenario, if it came to pass, might affect it.

"The debate about government surveillance programs and striking the right balance between protecting personal privacy and providing national security is a healthy one," an AT&T spokesman said.

Sprint referred to a statement provided by the CTIA Wireless Association, of which it is a member. The CTIA said that the balance between privacy and security could be achieved "without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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Zach Miners

IDG News Service
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