Privacy vs. hackers and spies

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Privacy concerns top President Obama’s full plate of tech issues, as he prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday.

Privacy groups are hopeful Obama will use the speech, which happens to fall on International Privacy Day, to discuss commercial privacy and surveillance issues.

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Earlier this month, Obama delivered a speech about changes he plans to make to the government’s surveillance activities, including increasing oversight of the controversial spying programs revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

While some applauded the address as a step in the right direction, many in the privacy community thought Obama didn’t go far enough in committing to rein in surveillance activities. 

In a letter to Obama, the Electronic Privacy Information Center pointed to issues on both fronts: calls for reforms to National Security Agency surveillance activities and concern over recent data breaches at major retailers.

“Few issues are of greater concern to users of Internet-based services than the protection of privacy,” the advocacy group said, urging Obama “to affirm that privacy is a fundamental human right” during his State of the Union address.

Many expect Obama to tackle the issue of increasing Internet access, including the president’s commitment to expand Internet use in schools.

In his year-end speech last month, Obama pointed to his “ConnectED” initiative to give more schoolchildren Internet access as an example of an underrated achievement.

“So we don’t always get attention for it, but the ConnectED program that we announced, where we’re going to be initiating wireless capacity in every classroom in America, will make a huge difference for kids all across this country and for teachers,” he said in December.

The American Library Association, representing major beneficiaries of previous federal funds to increase Internet access, called on Obama “to reaffirm his support for network neutrality and for high-speed Internet access to our nation’s libraries and schools to best support 21st century learning.”

Earlier this month, a federal court struck down the administration’s net neutrality rules, which prohibited Internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to certain websites.

After the ruling was announced, the White House said Obama “remains committed to an open Internet, where consumers are free to choose the websites they want to visit and the online services they want to use, and where online innovators are allowed to compete on a level playing field based on the quality of their products.”

Also on the table is the issue of high-skilled immigration, which has received renewed focus from the tech industry, including FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group backed by Silicon Valley executives, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Obama said he expects the House to take up the issue of immigration reform, despite the issue stalling last year.

Giovanni Peri, economics professor at University of California, Davis, said Obama could focus on “some specific measure” of immigration reform, like the largely uncontroversial issue of making more visas available for tech companies to retain high-skilled workers from other countries. 

In a year likely to be focused on economic recovery and job growth, addressing the inability of tech companies to retain foreign-born talent would make sense, Peri said. “These scientists and engineers are not just benefiting the firms they go to, but also benefit the whole economy.”