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Obama, tech executives met to discuss surveillance

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about home ownership at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downin
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about home ownership at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downin

By Susan Heavey, Jeff Mason and Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama met with the CEOs of Apple Inc, AT&T Inc as well as other top technology and privacy representatives on Thursday to discuss government surveillance in the wake of revelations about the programs, the White House confirmed on Friday.

Google Inc computer scientist Vint Cerf and transparency advocates also participated in the meeting, along with Apple's Tim Cook and AT&T's Randall Stephenson, according to the White House.

"The meeting was part of the ongoing dialogue the president has called for on how to respect privacy while protecting national security in a digital era," a White House official said in confirming a report by Politico, which broke the news of the meeting.

The closed-door session was not included on Obama's daily public schedule for Thursday. It followed another private session on Tuesday of Obama administration officials, industry lobbyists and privacy advocates.

The meetings follow disclosures about the U.S. government's secret surveillance tactics over emails and telephone data detailed in various media reports from information released by fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Obama is likely to face questions about the National Security Agency and the government's phone and electronic monitoring at his news conference later on Friday.

Groups invited to Thursday's meeting included Gigi Sohn, the head of the privacy and transparency group Public Knowledge, as well as representatives from other similar organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the White House said.

Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said the company considers protecting customer data a priority, adding, "we strongly advocate greater transparency around the demands we get from government agencies."

AT&T declined to comment as did Public Knowledge, which advocates open access to the Internet. Other participants also had no comment or did not return requests for comment on the discussions at the meeting.

'BROAD CONCERN'

Since the NSA's vast data-gathering programs were revealed in June, the president has repeatedly said he would encourage a national conversation on the need for U.S. surveillance while respecting people's right to privacy.

Critics have blasted the administration for the scope of the surveillance and blamed Congress for not carrying out proper oversight. Some lawmakers have vowed to push legislation calling for more accountability for the programs.

Tuesday's session with Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough, and top Obama lawyer Kathy Ruemmler included representatives from tech lobbying groups Information Technology Industry Council, TechNet and TechAmerica as well as civil liberties groups, the White House confirmed.

"There was broad concern among privacy advocates and the private sector about the impact of the NSA's surveillance efforts. Several of the private sector representatives worried that the international backlash against NSA collection of foreign data would harm American global competitiveness," American Civil Liberties Union President Susan Herman said.

Herman added that despite such meetings, "It's not clear yet that the White House appreciates the need to scale back these surveillance programs substantially instead of just rationalizing or tinkering with them."

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his group also attended on Tuesday and wants Obama to reform surveillance law, enact a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, and establish an international framework for privacy protection.

An industry source familiar the earlier meeting also said the talks "reflected the reality of the world in which we live - a digital world in which the economy is driven by data and information crossing borders and oceans almost instantly."

"That reality carries with it challenges that, working collaboratively, we can address," the source added.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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