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'The Google execs, the journalists, plus Brit and US spybosses in a cosy mansion confab'

Tinker, tailor, soldier, Silicon Valley wonks

By Iain Thomson, 22 May 2015

A high-level private meeting between Silicon Valley execs, spies and others was held in the UK this month: on the agenda, the state of government surveillance, and what limits should be put on it.

The attendee list is impressive. Key speakers apparently included former acting CIA boss John McLaughlin; former White House deputy chief of staff Mona Sutphen, the current and former heads of the UK's GCHQ; the current or former heads of intelligence agencies in Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and Germany; and the EU's counter terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove.

The tech industry also sent representatives, including Google's legal director Richard Salgado; Jane Horvath, Apple's senior director of global privacy; and Apple's product security and privacy manager Erik Neuenschwander, as well as Vodafone's external affairs director Matthew Kirk, it is reported.

Some members of the press were included on the roster: Duncan Campbell, who publishes hard-hitting exposes of government spying (including for The Register), plus we're told David Ignatius from the Washington Post, the BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera, and the historian Professor Timothy Garton Ash were invited.

All participants were bound by Chatham House rules; an agreement not to publicly attribute comments to particular participants. The three-day meeting was held in an English country house, and no public minutes of the conversations will ever be published.

Before the tinfoil hat brigade start frothing about shape-changing lizard people and descendants of the Bavarian Illuminati updating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it's not that sinister. It was organized by the Ditchley Foundation, which holds such meetings on a monthly basis to discuss the big issues of the day.

In fact, Campbell told Snowden newsletter The Intercept that the meeting is a very positive sign and, while not going into too much detail, said the conversations were very encouraging – perhaps the revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden are having a positive effect.

"Away from the fetid heat of political posturing and populist headlines, I heard some unexpected and surprising comments from senior intelligence voices, including that 'cold winds of transparency' had arrived and were here to stay," he said.

"Perhaps to many participants' surprise, there was general agreement across broad divides of opinion that Snowden – love him or hate him – had changed the landscape; and that change towards transparency, or at least 'translucency' and providing more information about intelligence activities affecting privacy, was both overdue and necessary."

Closed-door meetings like this make some people nervous, but they do serve a useful purpose since all parties can speak frankly without getting dragged over the hot coals of the media. That Google, Apple, and others are taking part isn't necessarily bad news, but a sign that they might be asserting the rights of their users. ®

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing