June 24, 2014, 1:47 PM — Congress needs to do more to protect private data of U.S. citizens from government surveillance and the misuse of technology by companies, a top Microsoft executive said Tuesday.
Congress has taken small steps to protect data from surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency and other government agencies, but lawmakers need to go further, Microsoft's Brad Smith said during a speech at the Brookings Institute. Lawmakers should also ensure that companies are accountable "to regulators, through regulation" for their privacy practices, Smith said.
"It needs to be well-designed regulation, it needs to be thoughtful, it needs to be balanced, but we cannot live in the Wild West when we're talking about information that is this important to people," he said.
The importance of online privacy will grow in the coming years, Smith said, as more household devices connect to the Internet. The number of connected devices today -- including 1 billion PCs and 2 billion smartphones -- will be dwarfed by the Internet of things, he predicted.
"By the end of this decade, there will be 50 billion devices in the Internet of things connected to data centers around the world," Smith said. "We will enter a world where every thermostat, smoke detector, fire extinguisher, parking meter, traffic light, garbage can, and you name it, is a connected device."
Smith didn't lay out the specific provisions of a data privacy bill the company would support, but he said it should ensure transparency over data collection practices and accountability for privacy practices of companies, and give consumers control over their data.
Microsoft, criticized earlier this year for searching for evidence of trade secret theft in a Hotmail account, has called in past years for Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation that would set the ground rules for businesses that handle personal information. So Smith's speech Tuesday represented, in some ways, a renewal of Microsoft's past advocacy.
But former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations in the past year of widespread worldwide surveillance by the agency has raised the profile of an "inevitable" debate over limits of online data collection, Smith said.
Microsoft turned down a 2002 request from the NSA to voluntarily turn over customer email information, with the company arguing that U.S. surveillance and law enforcement agencies should go through a legal process to obtain that data, Smith said. If a government agency requesting customer data "felt the legal process didn't go far enough, it shouldn't ask us for help, it should turn to Congress," Smith said.