Minutes before his data privacy class was set to start Wednesday night, Peter Swire was on a conference call with national security officials.
He was getting a heads up on which of 46 recommendations President Obama would adopt Friday to curtail various controversial practices of the National Security Agency. Swire, a professor at Georgia Tech, is one of the people who authored those recommendations, one of five experts the White House recruited to sort out the mess leaker Edward Snowden left in his wake.
The enormity of the issues at stake — personal privacy vs. national security — shows in the bags beneath Swire’s eyes. You can hear the stress in his tone, how impatient he is, at times, when he’s not the one talking.
His time is precious, his knowledge of the intersection of public policy and information technology virtually unmatched. Obama is the second president he’s advised. The first was Clinton, who made him the nation’s first chief counselor for in the executive office.
Why is this stuff so hard? Swire, 55, asked rhetorically in a 45-minute interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday morning, conducted at the Starbucks attached to the Barnes & Noble @ Georgia Tech bookstore.
“It’s very hard to weigh national security (and) civil liberties,” he said in reply to his own query.
Swire lives at the epicenter of the conflict. He’s done work for government security agencies and served on advisory boards for Silicon Valley giants such as Google, IBM, Intel and Microsoft
“I have friends at the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the NSA,” he said. “We lead very complicated lives.”
The issue is exacerbated because the subject at hand is the Internet, he said.
Understand, the same network we all use to surf the web is the same one being used by the NSA to catch potential terrorists plotting the next Sept. 11.
Swire, a lawyer by trade, was writing about encryption and Internet privacy before companies were allowed to do business on the net.
His wife, Annie Anton, is also an expert on Internet privacy, and is the chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing. They co-teach the data privacy class.
The roughly two dozen students, most of them graduate students, are being trained as developers and security experts to help policy makers understand immensely technical matters.
“These are all arguments that the Supreme Court will have to deal with, and they don’t know what SnapChat is…” Swire remarked at one point during the Wednesday class.
A student blurted out: “And it’s probably for the best.”
The room exploded in laughter.
Next week, after being at the president’s side Friday, Swire will travel to Brussells for a privacy conference. His job there is to assure European officials that the American clandestine agencies aren’t concerned about what regular folks had for breakfast.
By all accounts, he is a patriot. But 2013 was a hell of a year.
In August, when he was first contacted by the White House, Swire was acting as the moderator of an important international “do not track” effort. At stake were the rights of people to control who sees their browser histories.
He decided to resign that post.
He had also just begun teaching at Georgia Tech, having recently left a gig teaching law at Ohio State University. But he had to drop his class load for the fall.
Swire spent the next several months shuttling between Atlanta and Washington. When he was here, he worked in a special, secure room on 10th Street, called a SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility), designed to protect communication between Georgia Tech employees and governments or businesses.
The five-member panel Obama created was called the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. Its other members were a former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, the former deputy director of the CIA, the former dean the University of Chicago Law School who hired the president as a professor, and the person who advised the president on regulatory issues until 2012.
The group released its findings in December — to mixed reviews.
Silicon Valley found some of the recommendations for curbing the NSA’s activities too weak. The intelligence community found some of them unduly burdensome.
The panel said the president should curtail the NSA’s collection of meta-data on phone calls (who you call, and who calls you). It said that data should remain with private telecommunications companies, who should store it and release it to the intelligence community when requested.
Another recommendation called for more transparency around National Security Letters. That highly secretive system, made legal by the Patriot Act, requires private businesses to give up phone, email and financial records sought by agencies such as the FBI.
The panel also recommended certain rules to govern the conduct of cyber warfare.
Leading up to the president’s remarks Friday, there was speculation in the mainstream press that the key recommendations would not be adopted. Swire made it clear that he wasn’t saying.
As the interview drew to a close, he grabbed his things and headed out the door — momentarily forgetting his sport coat on the back of the chair.
Returning to retrieve it, he confessed: “I’m not too good with physical security.”