Spy critics say tech made midterm mistake

Spy critics say tech made midterm mistake
© Greg Nash

Critics of government surveillance say the tech industry made a major blunder in its midterm election giving.

While the industry showered cash on Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a candidate in no danger of losing in November, they provided nearly half as much financial backing to Sen. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (D-Colo.), one of the fiercest opponents of National Security Agency spying.

With Udall now fighting for his political life, some are questioning why the tech industry didn’t mount an all-hands-on-deck effort to help him.

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“I would like to see the tech industry make more noise about this issue of surveillance, because they are losing money every day these programs are allowed to continue,” American Civil Liberties Union Washington office Director Laura Murphy told The Hill in a recent interview.

“If they don’t see fixing this problem as an emergency, I just don’t get it,” she added. “I would’ve thought that the tech industry would’ve been more involved with Udall’s race.”

Silicon Valley has warned that American surveillance programs are costing companies billions of dollars and eroding trust in their brands.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation — an industry-associated think tank — has estimated that the U.S. cloud computing industry could lose up to $35 billion over the next few years because of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency. Forrester Research, an advisory firm, pegged the number closer to $180 billion.   

“The simplest outcome [of continued American spying] is we’re going to end up breaking the Internet,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt warned in a discussion with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTrump poised to kick off election-year fight over Medicaid Overnight Health Care: Justices won't fast-track ObamaCare case before election | New virus spreads from China to US | Collins challenger picks up Planned Parenthood endorsement Mnuchin warns UK, Italy of tariffs if digital tax plans are implemented MORE (D-Ore.) in Silicon Valley earlier this month.

“The costs of that are huge.”

Along with Wyden, Udall has been the Senate’s strongest critic of those spying programs. He has pushed for strong rules to prohibit the NSA’s “back door” searches of Americans using a law meant to target foreigners, among other measures.

As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Udall is one of the privileged few lawmakers with access to secret details of spy agencies’ operations.

Yet he is in one of the toughest races for the Senate and might lose his seat in just over a week. His opponent, Rep. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerMcConnell keeps press in check as impeachment trial starts Progressive group launches campaign targeting vulnerable GOP senators on impeachment What to watch for as Senate organizes impeachment on day one MORE (R-Colo.) has led by a small margin in every single poll this month. 

Tech companies have not been a major force in that race, and it could cost them.

“Do I think other tech players should [get involved in the race] because he has been, in fact, a very key person on surveillance stuff? Yeah,” one industry lobbyist who has contributed to Udall’s campaign said. “I’ve been urging. I would like to see other people put more in.”

The industry has certainly not been absent from Colorado.

Political action committees and individuals in the computer and Internet industry have given Udall’s campaign a total of $155,000, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, compared to $40,000 for Gardner.

But that’s less than half the $370,000 that the industry gave to Booker, a lawmaker who is popular with the industry but also expected to cruise to victory.

Ro Khanna, a Democrat and former Commerce Department official trying to unseat Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), has received more than $350,000 from the sector.

In fact, Udall is seventh on the list of recipients of tech industry dollars, behind Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial Hillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech MORE (D-Va.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyParnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial MORE (D-Mass.), John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Cornyn disputes GAO report on withholding of Ukraine aid: It's 'certainly not a crime' MORE (R-Texas) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump admin releases trove of documents on Ukrainian military aid The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions What to watch for on Day 2 of Senate impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.). Like Booker, Markey and Cornyn are considered shoo-ins for reelection.

The lower spending on Udall might be explained by the fact that Gardner only recently began to show a consistent edge in the polls, making it a tighter race than initially expected.

Other than criticism of spying, tech companies also don’t have much in common with Udall, who is not a member of the Senate Commerce or Judiciary committees — the two places where the vast majority of the tech industry’s issues are discussed.

And while he’s no stranger to the industry, Udall hasn’t actively courted Silicon Valley.

“Neither he nor the industry have cultivated a really close, multifaceted relationship,” the lobbyist said. “There’s nothing negative; it just hasn’t been there the way some of the people in Silicon Valley is, the way Wyden has really reached out over the years very aggressively to connect with people and get known.”

Udall also hasn’t made too much of a campaign issue about his spying opposition. Instead, he has overwhelmingly focused on contraception issues, a single-mindedness that has drawn the nickname “Mark Uterus.”

Nationwide, government spying ranks low on the list of voter priorities. But privacy advocates hope that could soon change.

“I think it’s definitely at the beginning,” said Nuala O’Connor, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It think it’s in its infancy so I think there’s a lot more to come.”

“I don’t think it’s a litmus test issue yet but I could see that being the case in the next decade.”