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Illustration: Axios Visuals

In December 2013, President Obama was meeting with a group of tech leaders, each urging the government to limit its increasingly widespread digital surveillance activities.

What happened: Obama, while addressing concerns, also made the prescient suggestion that the tech industry might want to prepare for questions of its own about the gathering and use of data. "I have a suspicion the guns will turn," Obama said, according to one of the participants, Microsoft president and longtime attorney Brad Smith.

  • The anecdote is just one of the fascinating stories recounted in Smith's forthcoming book "Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age." Axios got an exclusive early look at the book, which comes out in September and is co-written with Carol Ann Browne.

Smith offers insight and context around nearly every big issue facing tech, from consumer privacy and cybersecurity to artificial intelligence and the digital arms race with China. The overarching point is that all technologies have their good and bad uses and both need to be more fully understood.

"Even a broom can be used to sweep the floor or hit someone over the head. The more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause."
— Brad Smith, in "Tools and Weapons"

Of note: Many of the ideas in "Tools and Weapons" have been voiced before, often by Smith himself. It's the human stories that make it a compelling read.

  • For example, Smith traces the origins of California's new, strict privacy law to a dinner party in which Alastair Mactaggart, a Bay Area real estate developer, finds himself unsatisfied with answers about how Google and other tech companies dealt with customer information. As a result, he created the first draft of the bill that eventually became a pioneering law.
  • Smith also tells of Max Schrems, a University of Vienna law student visiting Santa Clara University, who got irritated by a tech company lawyer's dismissiveness about the company's obligations under European privacy law. That led him to file a complaint with European regulators that went all the way to the European Court of Justice, which concluded that existing international agreements were inadequate to protect EU customers' data.
  • There are also some behind-the-scenes revelations on some of the key cybersecurity issues of the last decade, including the reaction within Microsoft to Edward Snowden's accusation of tech-company complicity with the U.S. government — and how an impromptu frank discussion with Obama allowed Google and Microsoft to settle their issues over not being able to tell businesses when they were being targeted by secret court warrants.

My thought bubble: That Smith has smart things to say is hardly a surprise. That he has compelling stories to tell is more unexpected, as the career lawyer is known more for his prudence than his storytelling.

  • Smith tells me storytelling was an essential ingredient, as the goal was to write a book that would appeal not only to tech workers, academics and regulators, but also to a wider audience.
  • "If there was a single goal for the book it was to make all of these issues more accessible to people," Smith says.
  • Smith adds the most gratifying feedback has been people saying the book was "way more fun to read" than they thought it would be.

Go deeper

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 14 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker