World's elite gathers for Davos 2014

Give Snowden credit for surveillance debate: Google's Schmidt

Eric Schmidt at WEF in Davos, Switzerland.
Patrick Bucci | CNBC

Former NSA analyst Edward Snowden should be credited for starting a debate about privacy versus security, Google's Eric Schmidt, told CNBC on Friday.

In a wide-ranging "Squawk Box" interview from Davos, Switzerland, the Google executive chairman also insisted that his company knew nothing about the National Security Agency's surveillance activities. He said the agency's actions have cost technology firms "hundreds of millions of dollars in profit" due to opportunities that went to international competitors.

He said U.S. spying had become something of a talking point for European technology companies, giving them an opening to lure business from their American counterparts.

Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia in the face of U.S. criminal charges for his disclosures about NSA spying, has been alternately hailed as a hero and vilified as a traitor.

"When I look at what's happened here, a debate has been started," Schmidt said. "You have to give him credit for that."

(Read more: Obama ends NSA's mass storage of telephone metadata)

Google's top executive also reiterated his position that his company, along with other tech giants, were outraged by the disclosures, and took preventative measures to safeguard user privacy.

"It was a bad policy," Schmidt said. "If you're going to collect that data, ... as a general matter the government should only collect data it really needs."

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—By CNBC's Javier E. David.