Should NSA surveillance influence your business cloud buying decisions?

Moderated by David Gewirtz | November 4, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (23:00 PST)

Summary: Our IT security experts debate the impact that NSA surveillance revelations can have on your business.

Robin Harris

Robin Harris




Larry Seltzer

Larry Seltzer

Best Argument: No


Audience Favored: Yes (74%)

Closing Statements

More risks than rewards

Robin Harris

To sum up then the arguments against taking the NSA into account in your cloud activities are simple and few. 

 There's nothing you can do about it anyway so why worry?

 The NSA's activities are necessary to protect Americans against terrorism.

 The economic advantages of cloud services are too great to ignore despite the security risks.

 Against that I argue that the unprecedented surveillance by the NSA is dangerous to the health and security of the Internet; unnecessary to protect Americans against terrorism; and should be addressed by both our elected representatives and major cloud service providers to make the Internet more secure and to increase the transparency of intelligence activities.

 The cloud is an important and revolutionary infrastructure. If the United States is to maintain technology leadership we need to be able to assure the entire world that their data and secrets are safe with American technology providers.

Worry about criminals first, NSA after

Larry Seltzer

I have attempted, in this debate, to avoid emotional arguments or assertions of moral authority. If you are making security decisions for a business you really need to do the same or you are not serving your company's interests.

The core of my argument here is that there is nothing about what the NSA has done or is accused of doing which gives reason to take measures that you shouldn't be taking anyway. I'll go a step further here: The NSA is almost certainly uninterested in your cloud data, but there is a large population of criminals who might be. You need to protect your data against them, and that means taking pretty much all the measures you could to impede the NSA.  Ergo: Don't worry about the NSA. It accomplishes nothing and confuses the issue. They are just another potential attacker, albeit a highly-sophisticated and heavily-resourced one.

Great debate: More action wins

David Gewirtz

This was an exceptional debate and I was proud to be able to elicit such excellent responses from both Robin and Larry. I approached judging this debate based on the merits of each question.

For each question, the individual answers Robin and Larry gave were each judged on their own merit, and each debater was awarded up to five points. Also, each question was judged based on which debater gave the better answer and balanced the issues of economics and security. For this part of the metric, the debaters split five points, with one debater always being awarded more points than the other.

As I reviewed the answers, I was struck by the differences in style of these two experts. Robin often answered with a more global and ideological perspective and while Larry often gave the more practical answers.

I found Robin's answers generally more inspiring and representative of the way I'd like to see us function as a nation and a society. I found Larry's answers more directly actionable.

In the end, that's what proved to decide our winner. The debate is entitled, "Should NSA surveillance influence your business cloud buying decisions?" and, at the end, our debaters really needed to provide answers that IT managers and CXOs could take to their management and stockholders.

Larry met that responsibility better, and scored 69 points to Robin's 62. Therefore Larry is the winner of this week's Great Debate.

That said, if they agree to run in 2016, I'd rather vote for Harris for President or Seltzer for President than any of the crop of jokers we're likely to be fielding from either of the parties. I'm all for the Seltzer/Harris or Harris/Seltzer ticket!


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  • It's certainly having an effect on businesses and the intenet.

    "Should NSA surveillance influence your business cloud buying decisions?"

    It's certainly having an effect on businesses and the internet. Lavabit shut down, so did Groklaw (IMO one of the best legal resources in the tech world).

    It's not really down to if it "should" affect your business anymore; there's the real chance that it *will* affect your business, whether you like it or not.

    If there are more cloud provider shutdowns similar to Lavabit, it will very much affect your cloud buying decisions.

    And if the NSA has problems with moles, or if there are any more Snowden-style incidents, you may have an issue with breaches in your data. It's a risk.
    Reply 9 Votes I'm Undecided
    • Snowden-style incident

      While I'm quite certain that Snowden doesn't have anything on me in which the Chinese or Russian intelligence services would be interested, it should give people pause that those were the countries he fled to. Snowden may not have given anything to China (and he denies doing so), but I'd be very surprised if President Putin (a veteran spook himself) didn't insist that Snowden be *thoroughly* interrogated by a pair of FSB agents (who had better be happy with the answers) before he was granted asylum in Russia.
      John L. Ries
      Reply 12 Votes I'm Undecided
      • No room for patriots in this nation anymore.

        The only reason Snowden had to flee to Russia is because our fascist government wanted to hunt him down like a dog to silence him. So, it's their own fault if secrets end up in the hands of the Russians. A true patriot doesn't just follow orders when he knows something is morally wrong. Snowden stood up against our tyrannical, oppressive government and shed light on some of their many illegal and immoral activities. This is the same type of thing our founding fathers did when they rose up against immoral tyranny to form a new nation. If our founding fathers acted like that today, they'd be labeled "terrorists," hunted like animals, and thrown in Guantanamo permanently. Snowden is far less evil than anyone currently sitting in Washington. He sacrificed everything he had to do what was right. Heck, I'd vote for Snowden for President, except I know the CIA would assassinate him within days/weeks of taking office.
        Reply 10 Votes I'm Undecided
        • So again...

          ...what should the rules be regarding the handling of "state secrets"? Or should there be any at all?

          Unfortunately, professional revolutionaries are notoriously intolerant of dissent, so I'm highly unlikely to trust any of them (that and I strongly disagree with the programs they normally support as unworkable or just plain wrong-headed). So what we really need are more proactive and well informed citizens who can distinguish between news, entertainment, and propaganda (and one should always start with oneself).

          I figure that if the revolution you seem to want happens, that I won't be a free man very long.
          John L. Ries
          Reply 8 Votes I'm Undecided
    • Snowden apparently did it for free...

      but if a deep pocket company wishes to attain data on their competition they can now buy their way in. As if regular industrial espionage wasn't enough to worry about.
      Andrej Petelin
      Reply 7 Votes I'm Undecided
  • And I'd like to put this out there.

    And I'd like to put this out there. Groklaw did an excellent writeup on why we really need to be concerned about this, right before it was shut down.
    Reply 20 Votes I'm Undecided
  • If they wanted your data, they're going to get it

    Should this affect your business? No, not unless you are in the habit of selling explosive materials and other black market items and have an uncanny approach to hosting it in the Cloud.

    Are your business practices not of a legal nature? Maybe you shouldn't use any electronic device and wear a tin-foil hat.

    I think all this fuss about the NSA getting at your Cloud data is slightly justified, that is if you're incorporating bad security practices in the cloud and need to "tighten up". Its a good fright lesson, but to go chicken little about it when you are not doing anything against the state and illegal, ridiculous.

    But I'm not saying keep a blind eye, just don't overreact. They will get your data if they need it that bad, cloud or not.

    Besides we use cloud servers for processing GIS data that is publicly available from the government and used for government purposes.

    So should it bother me, not really.

    If I was hosting Chinese/Russian/Terror network secrets, etc....yes.

    Doing something that the government doesn't need to know about, A) keep it off the internet, B) Watch who you hire, C) Burrow underground.
    Reply 5 Votes I'm for No
    • But the government isn't the problem...

      If they can't even keep a lid on Snowden who apparently wasn't paid to leak all this information what makes you think the more business-minded NSA employees won't or aren't already offering to seek out your sensitive business information to the competition? The raw processing power and data processing capabilities of the NSA makes industrial espionage a whole lot easier.
      Andrej Petelin
      Reply 13 Votes I'm Undecided
  • No amount of public outrage is going to hinder the NSA ...

    ... (until, unless) Congress decides that the NSA has gone too far (which will probably be never). Best practices should always be followed without regard to what the NSA can and cannot do. The word privacy is not in the U. S. Constitution. It has been inferred by the courts from the Fourth Amendment:

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    But once your personal information is moved to a public conveyance (the Internet, an ISP, a social network), all bets are off. There is no clear definition of your rights once you willingly share this information with Google, or Facebook, or your local grocer in exchange for coupons.

    The bottom line? Unless you want to personally take yourself off "off the grid" if they want to, the NSA can and will find you and everything about you which you have ever put in any electronic format.
    M Wagner
    Reply 14 Votes I'm for No
    • The question is... much work is it going to be? At least if a U.S. Marshal serves me with a warrant demanding data off of my server, I'll know about it.

      And the spooks might be able to intercept strongly encrypted e-mail, but it's a lot more work than doing it to plain text.
      John L. Ries
      Reply 9 Votes I'm Undecided