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Why the Senate must act now on USA FREEDOM Act

Revelations that U.S. national security agencies have been accessing consumer data without the knowledge of the affected companies have forced technology companies into an unenviable position – directly in the crosshairs of both the government and their customers. But the tech industry shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of data protection alone. Congress can support industry efforts by passing the USA FREEDOM Act and strengthening citizens’ privacy protections – and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) recent comments indicate lawmakers understand this sense of urgency.

Convenience afforded by technology must be balanced with consumer privacy. We all want to be able to check our email on the go, allowing cell towers to ping our information back and forth, but we also want those data transfers to be secure. We want to use our devices to pay bills and ring up register purchases – but to do so, we must feel comfortable that our credit card and bank information aren’t subject to hackers.

{mosads}Government inaction on data privacy has a two-fold effect: consumers lose faith in the security of their devices, and the tech companies that make them, in turn, lose business. Our government’s actions have put U.S. companies at a disadvantage as foreign customers and governments fear that the U.S. government can reach company-managed data at will. 

Several companies, including members of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, have lost contracts worth tens of millions of dollars as a result of U.S. government overreach.  In July, the German government announced it was pulling its contract with Verizon due to fears the Internet provider was allowing U.S. agencies to spy on the government’s communications. Cisco’s orders in China fell 18 percent in the three months following the Snowden revelations. Foreign competitors are capitalizing on the situation and using it to boost their sales and take business from U.S. companies. 

Data privacy is a major economic issue that crosses international borders and could have long-term, lasting effects on the Internet. Several countries are considering proposals that would limit the free flow of information, negatively impacting the functionality of the Internet. In spite of these setbacks, U.S. law enforcement officials are pushing back against increased protections. FBI Director James Comey went on the offensive against Apple and Google for offering high levels of protection for their customers’ data, saying the move to encrypt cell phones will hinder law enforcement and national security efforts. 

Until reforms are made to the nation’s intelligence gathering programs, trust in American companies and the U.S. government will not be restored, and our competitiveness in the global economy will diminish. Passage of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) USA FREEDOM Act is the best opportunity to make these much-needed reforms. This legislation reforms government surveillance activities and strikes a fair balance between national security concerns with the right to privacy by ending the government’s automatic bulk collection of phone records and internet metadata. The USA FREEDOM Act also affirms the government’s commitment to transparency and oversight of intelligence programs, ensuring the continuation of strong national security programs while protecting privacy rights and allowing the global free flow of information. 

In May, the House of Representatives took steps to reign in the NSA and restore privacy rights by passing the USA FREEDOM Act by a bipartisan vote of 303-121. The Senate is now poised to take this opportunity during the lame-duck session to do the same.  

This bill is an opportunity for the House and Senate to come together and send meaningful reform to President Obama’s desk before the end of the year. Americans need to know that their government is working to protect, not undermine, them. And businesses must to be able to send a clear message to consumers in the U.S. and abroad that their private information is theirs alone. 

Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 electronic companies, and the author of the New York Times bestselling books Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on twitter. @GaryShapiro. 

Tags Harry Reid Patrick Leahy

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