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 UdallThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic presidential race comes into sharp focus Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump 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 WydenGOP set to release controversial Biden report Democrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate GOP senator blocks Schumer resolution aimed at Biden probe as tensions run high 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 GardnerGraham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Gardner signals support for taking up Supreme Court nominee this year Tumultuous court battle upends fight for Senate 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 WarnerIntelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' House approves bill to secure internet-connected federal devices against cyber threats MORE (D-Va.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySchumer: 'Nothing is off the table' if GOP moves forward with Ginsburg replacement Democrats see fundraising spike following Ginsburg death Democratic senator calls for eliminating filibuster, expanding Supreme Court if GOP fills vacancy MORE (D-Mass.), John CornynJohn CornynTumultuous court battle upends fight for Senate Texas Democrats roll out first wave of planned digital ads as Election Day nears Calls grow for Biden to expand election map in final sprint MORE (R-Texas) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Trump puts Supreme Court fight at center of Ohio rally The Memo: Dems face balancing act on SCOTUS fight 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.”