Big Technology’s protest against government surveillance is fine hypocrisy

Facebook, Google, Twitter and others are in the business of trafficking user’s private information — they don’t want the government to compete.

NSA logo Big Technology’s protest against government surveillance is fine hypocrisy

Silicon Valley is waging a PR war against government surveillance in an effort to convince the world that internet-traffic hoovering National Security Agency is the only bad guy in town.

Eight companies, led by Google, Facebook and Microsoft took out full-page ads in Washington and national newspapers to publish an “open letter to Washington” calling for the need to reform NSA surveillance with things like “Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information,” and “Transparency About Government Demands.”

Below is an excerpt from the letter:

We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.

For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure — deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.

But here’s the grand dilemma: without Big Technology hoovering up user’s data through the social web, the NSA’s PRISM would have nothing to find.

Even if it turns out Big Technology did not cooperate with the NSA, voluntarily or involuntarily through court orders, the fact is their obsession with collecting and trafficking user’s data gave the NSA a bounty to find.

Larry Page, whose company recently said that Gmail users have “no legitimate expectation of privacy in information [they] voluntarily turn over to third parties” in a court filing attempting to swat away a data-mining lawsuit, is quoted by the New York Times as criticizing governments for the “apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight.”

This is coming from the same company that might rid us all of the last morsel of privacy with the modern-panopticon Google Glass.

Page’s quote could apply to any email provider or social network. Biographical information that a user fills out about themselves, their social ties, their geo-tagged location updates — they are all stored by the company to sell ads to the user, thus in line to be sucked up by the data vacuum of the NSA.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, summarized this quite well when speaking to the Times: “The companies are placing their users at risk by collecting and retaining so much information,” he said. “As long as this much personal data is collected and kept by these companies, they are always going to be the target of government collection efforts.”

By any and all means, the NSA’s PRISM isn’t excusable whatsoever; it’s a gross violation of the fourth Amendment. However, PRISM is only successful because people voluntarily disclose so much data to social networking companies in the first place. PRISM is a symptom of the Web 2.0 era, where people disclose all kinds of personal information  in exchange for a free service.

 

Sam Reynolds is a Canadian technology journalist based in Taipei. His interest is the intersection between politics, business and technology.