Palo Alto, California (CNN)President Barack Obama convened a Silicon Valley strategy session here Friday aimed at thwarting hackers who target Americans, though lingering concerns over privacy have iced over the once-chummy ties between Obama and the tech sector.
Obama pitches cybersecurity to Silicon Valley
Obama told a crowd of industry insiders on the campus of Stanford University that as a former professor of constitutional law, and a parent concerned about his family's online privacy, he had his own misgivings about government intrusion online.
But he said as the nation's protector it falls to him to root out signs of coming threats.
"Grappling with how the government protects the American people from adverse events, while at the same time making sure the government itself is not abusing its capabilities, is hard," Obama said. "The cyber world is the wild wild west. In some degree we're expected to be the sheriff."
Meant to unite industry brass with top U.S. law enforcement officials, the White House cybersecurity summit on the campus of Stanford University attracted only one major Silicon Valley CEO: Apple's Tim Cook, who addressed the gathering shortly before Obama spoke on Friday.
Chief executives at other firms, like Google and Facebook, were invited but sent top network security personnel instead.
People familiar with the companies' decision-making were split on the reason why. One said top bosses were sitting out amid persistent concern over government surveillance, almost two years since the Edward Snowden leaks. Others downplayed the absence, suggesting the summit was intended more for retail firms, banks and insurers -- all of which were hacked recently.
Indeed, the CEOs or presidents of American Express, MasterCard, Visa and Walgreens were all slated to participate Friday, an indication of the summit's focus on making online payment systems more secure. Those companies were set to announce new commitments to better protect consumer information online.
Those agreements aside, both the White House and officials at technology firms agree there remains a damaged relationship between Obama and Silicon Valley.
"Obviously there have been tensions," said Michael Daniel, Obama's top adviser for cybersecurity issues, citing the privacy concerns raised following Snowden's leaks. "The only way you get at it is continue to have a dialogue and continue to engage."
"That's part of the reason we're coming out here," he said.
Obama made only short mention of privacy from government surveillance during his remarks, however, and didn't directly address concerns about "bulk collection" of data.
"In all of our work we need to make sure we are protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the American people," Obama said.
In a private roundtable with tech executives later Friday the issues were expected to be raised in more detail.
Obama's aides organized the summit as Americans grow increasingly nervous about the security of their information online. In the past year hackers have managed to infiltrate the networks of a wide cross-section of the U.S. economy: financial firms, retail giants, movie studios and health insurers.
Hacks of defense networks and White House systems, while not endangering U.S. national security, have led to fears the federal government could also be at risk of infiltration.
When Americans' personal information is compromised, Obama wants companies to be more forthright in disclosing what happened. And he wants more information shared between firms and the federal government that could prevent sensitive details from getting into hackers' hands.
He's signed an executive action with those goals in mind during the summit. The measure creates a framework for companies to share information with each other and the federal government, while still maintaining privacy protections for consumers, the White House said.
The administration also announced this week the formation of a cyber threat center that will act as a clearinghouse for information on potential hacking incidents in the United States.
"It's one of the great paradoxes of our time: the very technologies that enable us to do so much good can undermine us," Obama said during his remarks.
The gathering of technology players and chiefs of key U.S. law enforcement agencies comes months after the network breach at Sony Pictures Entertainment, perhaps the highest-profile hack in American corporate history. The episode, which ensnared Sony's top executives and ultimately caused the studio to scrap the cinema release of a major motion picture, galvanized Washington to take more seriously the threats posed by cyber criminals.
The Sony attack was the work of North Korea, the U.S. government claims. Other hacking incidents -- including the recent breach of consumer information at the health insurer Anthem -- have allegedly originated in China.
During his short speech Friday, Apple's Cook addressed the security of online payment systems, including announcing that the federal government will begin to use the Apple Pay system for certain transactions.
Cook's company came under increased scrutiny last year for its privacy safeguards after photos and texts from celebrities' iCloud accounts were stolen and made public. Apple has been criticized for failing to notify users their information was compromised in a timely manner.
The tech giant also came under fire from the other end of the privacy spectrum when the FBI blasted its encryption policy on new iPhones and iPads. The law enforcement agency said the encryption measures -- preventing the search of communications, even with a subpoena -- could allow terrorists to plot attacks.
Obama, however, has so far avoided addressing the issue, and the White House didn't respond when asked if he would address the topic with Cook on Friday.
After his Friday speech, the President will raise money for Democrats in San Francisco and fly to Palm Springs -- his favorite desert oasis -- for the remainder of the holiday weekend.