By now you must have heard of PRISM, a secret surveillance programme run by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. The PRISM story was broken by the Guardian and the Washington Post after they received some classified material from Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old technical assistant who worked with the CIA and had access to NSA data.
There was never a doubt that governments across the world, the US in particular, took help of technology companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple while investigating crimes or tracking terrorists. But the perception was that whenever this happened, some sort of due process was followed and that the technology companies had a level of control on what they shared. There was a perception that companies, especially Google, were strongly committed to the privacy of their users.
Last week, this perception shattered. The leaked material purportedly reveals that NSA had “direct access” to the servers of nine companies and the agency officials could monitor, track and record every message or mail sent by web users utilizing the services of these companies. The companies named in the reports were Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft, AOL, YouTube, and PalTalk.
A lot has happened since the NSA material leaked. But, broadly, there are three takeaways:
1- Each company named in the reports has denied that the NSA has direct access to its servers. Google and Facebook have been most vocal in their denials with Google CEO Larry Page going as far as to publish a blog post titled “What the… ?”. If you are curious, the dots represent the F word. All these companies have also denied they know of any NSA programme called PRISM. But they acknowledged sharing data with the US government when a lawful request was made for it.
2- Initially, US officials only hinted that something called PRISM exists, but as the furore grew over it they formally acknowledged the existence of PRISM. (So much for the denial from the technology companies). But given that the nature and methods of the programme are still secret, it is possible that tech companies are also not wrong. US officials claim that media reports are wrong about how PRISM works. We don’t yet know for sure if it is “direct access” to data or indirect, and the rules and regulations that govern this arrangement. But it looks that, in some way or the other, voluntarily or involuntarily, directly or indirectly, technology companies based in the US are sharing a lot of user data with the NSA.
3- After the media reported on PRISM, US officials have been very vocal about the nature of the surveillance programme. They say it is targeted at foreign nationals. And given the fact how seriously the US takes its Fourth Amendment (no unreasonable search and spying of Americans) they are probably right.
The foreigner angle is aimed at pacifying the US media and their public. Unfortunately, as an Indian national, who uses Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft services and products all the time, this is a poor consolation to me – in fact, these revelations of the last week would unnerve and alarm every single individual who is not a citizen of the US.
Over the years, companies like Google have created an aura that they are true multinational firms. They deal in services that reside on WWW, a world without boundaries, and while they operate under the local laws of each country, they often take the lead in fighting for the privacy of their users, irrespective of where they were located. Or so it appeared.
These are the companies that gave the impression that they often put, or at least try to put, ethical and moral considerations above the absolute legal requirements they may have to follow. They have always maintained that they do the right thing.
For example, consider Google. In 2010, it publicly took on China and left the country because it found the surveillance by the Chinese government unacceptable. This is how Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, explained the company’s decision at that time: “These attacks and the surveillance they uncovered—combined with attempts over the last year to further limit free speech on the web in China including the persistent blocking of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger—had led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on Google.cn.”
In the wake of last week’s revelations, it is not difficult to get the impression that incidents like the Chinese pullout and the grandstanding over freedom of speech are more of a public relations exercise.
The image that technology companies created has been so strong that we have trusted them with our intimate secrets. Google and Facebook probably know more about us than even our parents or families. We have recorded every moment of our lives and shared them with technology companies through mails, social media updates, photos, videos, and smartphones. We did it because we trusted them. We didn’t believe that just because these companies are headquartered in Silicon Valley, they would share each and every piece of data with the US government (or some other government) —even if they were legally bound to do that through overarching, broad, secretive and unethical laws.
We trusted technology companies to do the “right thing” and not the “legal thing”. We even cheered when they did the right thing, like defying the government of Egypt by standing up for the activists in 2011, in countries that we believed had oppressive governments.
This trust has been the biggest casualty of the leaks over the last week. It reveals that despite “foreigners” making up for more than 80% of their user base, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and others remain US companies first. When asked to cough up inordinate amount of personal data of their unsuspecting clients, they do not stand up to the US government, the way they do in India or some other country. When facing mass surveillance, they do not pullout of the US.
They only do the “right thing” when they are operating outside the US.
It seems Silicon Valley companies do not respect the rights of the users who are foreigners. They only respect the privacy of the US citizens.
In fact, the effect the NSA surveillance machine is having on the internet, and on people across the world (and not the US citizens alone), is the primary reason why Snowden leaked documents. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building,” he told the Guardian.
Silicon Valley companies don’t seem this brave. For them foreigners are fair game. Keep this in mind next time you create a Gmail account, buy an iPhone, make a Skype call or post a photo on Facebook. Use these services but also be mindful of the privacy risks they carry
View the original Downsum source here