CEOs of Facebook, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google snub Obama’s cybersecurity summit

13 Feb 2015

US President Barack Obama talks with national security adviser Susan E Rice in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC

Deepening division between the White House and Silicon Valley over privacy issues may have led to the top execs at Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google giving US President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity summit a miss.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Google CEO Larry Page and its chairman Eric Schmidt have declined invitations to attend the public conference at Stanford University today, not far from where they have their respective Silicon Valley headquarters in California.

Never mind that the President of the United States has come all the way from Washington, DC, they have other things to do.

However, Apple CEO Tim Cook will be in attendance for Obama’s keynote speech and a light lunch later.

The CEOs of Apple, American Express, Pacific Gas and Electric, Kaiser Permanente, MasterCard  and AIG are among the speakers, which also include officials from the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. 

Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson and commerce secretary Penny Pritzker are also slated to address the summit.

At the heart of the issue is privacy and surveillance. There is a greater realisation that the US has gone too far, especially in the surveillance of non-US citizens by the US National Security Agency (NSA), thanks to the revelations by former CIA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Here is the rub

At the same time, the US tech companies are the reason all of this data exists. Why do they need to hold onto so much of it? Advertising? Can they secure this data and be responsible with it? And do they have to comply with NSA snooping or more mandated security information sharing? And that’s the rub.

Post-Snowden, the summit represents the Obama administration’s efforts to bring everyone together to reach a common ground, and while the tech giants will be sending their respective security and privacy experts, the failure of top executives to attend is sending out the wrong signals.

In related news, Obama is expected to announce at the summit an executive order directing the US government and tech companies to share more information about cybersecurity threats, particularly in response to cyberattacks such as those upon health insurance company Anthem Inc and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Whether Obama’s executive order stands any chance of getting through Congress is another question. The clear signal right now is the White House and Silicon Valley do not stand united on cybersecurity.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years