Don't blame the corporations for the surveillance state

Don't blame the corporations for the surveillance state

Summary: If the law of the land requires Microsoft or Google or Facebook to surrender data about their customers then that's what they have to do. They're victims of the situation.

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They're spying on us! But who are "they"?

Usually it's not the FBI or the NSA directly monitoring our communications, but the private corporations with which we intend to do business. Read the privacy policy — whatever else it says about protecting your data, it also says that they will respond to proper legal requests from law enforcement and other government authority.

Many of you are, no doubt, mad at the big faceless corporations for participating in this, but they're not "participating", they're obeying orders. They're genuine victims in all this. Yes, I hear the boo-hoo-hoo's.

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Big Internet corporations and telecoms are in a bad spot in situations like this. Obviously they don't want to be at odds with the US government, but they have a genuine interest in their customers feeling good about doing business with them.

Think through the problem in the abstract: Do you want corporations to refuse to comply with valid government orders? There are a lot of questionable laws out there, but it's not reasonable to expect public corporations to engage in civil disobedience.

What could they do? Sometimes nothing; recipients of a national security letter are compelled to comply. They could challenge government orders in court and sometimes they do. Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo! are currently suing the government in the FISA Court seeking permission to disclose more information about their compliance with government orders.

For a good example of how the companies are put in a difficult position, consider the origins of the telephone metadata program, the first of the Snowden disclosures. The major telecoms were cooperating unofficially with requests for bulk metadata; AT&T got outed on it and was sued. After this, the telecoms told the government that if they wanted the data anymore there would have to be a court order, and thus was born the system of periodically reauthorized FISA court-ordered metadata disclosure.

Were the companies just covering their asses? Yes, of course they were, and it was the right thing to do. They were protecting their rights and their customers' right by forcing the matter into a judicial process. The fact that it's the secret FISA court complicates things, but that was all the telecoms could do, and that's all you could have expected of them.

I was recently reminded of a story from early 2010. Google and a number of other companies had been hacked in China. There was evidence that the Google hack was, at least in part, about getting at the GMail accounts of dissidents; Google actually pulled out of China at the time, (which is the exception to the rule I made above about corporations and civil disobedience, but Google is not a Chinese company and may have had other reasons to leave).

I emailed Steve Ballmer at the time and urged him to go along in some way, at least to show disapproval of the Chinese hacking surveillance state. He replied with a polite "we're doing what we can in different countries, etc." I wasn't mad at him at the time, just disappointed. Now I realize that he knew that they Microsoft was, under legal order, providing data on US citizens, and was probably aware of many of the shadier tactics of the government. I'm not going to tell Microsoft what the right thing is for them to do. It's too complicated.

Don't get the idea that I'm equating Chinese government hacking of their own citizens' email accounts in order to suppress dissent with a US legal process which, for all its faults, is designed to protect the country from external threats. They're not the same. But it's not the privilege of US corporations to decide which US laws they will comply with.

Topics: Security, Government Asia, Government US

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37 comments
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  • Nice try......but

    if the corporations weren't already spying on their users there would be nothing to pass on to the government. Why would any corporation want to keep emails? Because they figure that it is data that they can make money from. Corporations even sell email lists of its customers.

    As for corporations like MS, Bill Gates, who is now doing god's work (his own words not mine) thinks he's Jesus. I wonder what Jesus would do in such a situation? Ask Bill!
    JAL_z
    • What would Jesus do?

      I'm assuming you are speaking of Jesus Christ, aka Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the carpenter...he would do what he said to do..."Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (KJV)
      wizard57m-cnet
      • Statistic

        He would name every single person on Earth by a number and call the office tracking them Statistics.
        Vapur9
        • As I understand the rumor...

          St. Peter is stationed at Heaven's gate, and has a giant book. In that book is everything ever done or said by every person that ever lived.

          Maybe the NSA IS doing God's work...
          mlashinsky@...
      • umm

        That was about Taxes, not people. The information is not the Governments property and has never been.
        slickjim
      • Wow Jesus is really helpful here

        Nt
        otaddy
      • Companies already screwed us

        Companies already showed us what they thought of us by moving most jobs overseas and eroding the tax base. Do you now need further convincing that they don't care a fig about us, our country or democracy. Its all about $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
        The "leaders" feel immune to any social upheavle.
        proton_z
    • it is beyond that.

      People have to choose a side in the face of tyranny and those that didn't were either cowards or traitors.

      Marissa Mayer said she was afraid of going to jail! She should have been afraid of her kids living like prisoners because their freedoms are gone.
      slickjim
      • It's easy to throw others and their families to the wolves

        but different when you're asked to throw you own in their place.
        William Farrel
    • Thinks he's Jesus?

      How would you know that, unless you think you're God?
      William Farrel
    • At least he is trying to spend his money for the society

      What are you doing? Except feeling jealousy for your failures.
      Ram U
    • But we can do better...

      by pointing out that it is these companies themselves that are encouraging the NSA (and foreign equivalents) to make the demands -- by already doing so much of their legwork for them.

      Besides: surely I am not the only one to remember when Google was encouraging the spread of Gmail by assuring users that their data would be truly private. And then what happened? When governments violate our privacy, Google pleads, "it is not our fault".
      mejohnsn
  • Wrong: Big U.S. internet companies could have told us

    Wiretapping of communication lines used to be something reserved for extreme criminals. Now the government wiretaps us all.

    If the government thinks it's such an essential practice, then they should have told us before they started tapping our lines. The fact they didn't tell us, you know it's something sinister.

    The big internet and media companies should also have told us they were handing our private communications to the NSA. Yes they could have told us. There's much legal opinion, published elsewhere, that the CEOs of Microsoft Facebook and Yahoo would not have gone to jail for telling us they were creating a back door in their products for the NSA.

    The other thing is that big media companies, such as CBS, should be challenging government, not apologizing for illegal wiretapping such as this.

    It's all one big cosy relationship between big business and government, with each appeasing the other. We shouldn't be making excuses for them.
    Vbitrate
    • No, they couldn't according to the hidden law and the hidden court

      No, they couldn't according to the hidden law and the hidden court...
      The USA have become the true fascists!
      There is no way back unless you vote for the different parties....but that's impossible
      The only way is a revolution of a few but they will proclaim martial state and the game is over
      anywherehome
      • Incorrect. You confuse 'cannot' with 'may not'.

        It's a common confusion - like when a clerk at a store says they can't give you a refund. Of course they can - they're just not permitted to.

        In this case, the corporations could have manned up and said 'we're not going to get involved in this' and taken it to the public. Yes, there would have been repercussions for doing it - but they'd also get the respect and support of the general population for doing it. Given the backlash it's caused already - I suspect the government would be forced into backing off... and worse, the cat would be out of the bag anyway.

        So instead we get 'I'm just following orders'...
        The Werewolf!
        • Great - respect and support

          and when the government veto's that merger they were needing to do to stay competitive, or fines them out of their profits.

          Will the respect of the community bail them out, or will people then just start shopping at your competitor's place, because you're no longer able to give them what they want?
          William Farrel
  • Corporations...

    The corporations essentially write our laws, so why not blame them? Besides, they spy on us at least as much as the government, it's just that instead of presenting subpoenas they do it by burying their prying eyes inside shiny packages that they leave at our doorstep for free and we gladly bring into our homes. You could say that the entire i-economy is little more than one giant social engineering exploit.

    Let me give you just one example: some time ago I bought a new 10" tablet to go along with my Nexus 7. I configured the device at home, added my home WiFi settings and was happily on my way. A couple of days later I've got the tablet with me and decide I'm going to tether it to my phone to hop on the internet. So I turn on my phone's tethering feature and go to configure my tablet, and lo and behold, it's connected to the internet without my doing anything at all! How's that possible, I'm asking myself. My wireless hotspot is configured to require a password to connect. So I go into my tablet's WiFi setting to see if it's automatically connected to some other open WiFi signal and what do I fond? Not only am I connected to my phone, but there are remembered connections for all the places I've ever connected to with my Nexus 7: Starbucks, Panera, the local library, etc. So apparently, every WiFi hotspot I've ever connected to lives out there somewhere in the cloud on Google's servers.

    The notion that government spying on us is a shocking breach of trust and privacy seems rather quaint when you consider just how much our corporations know about us. Consider just this one fact: 10 years ago if the FBI wanted to track someone's movements they had to get a court order to attach a GPS device to your car. Today, if Google or Apple or Microsoft wants to know where you've been it's as easy as examining their logs. Not only did they not need a court order, we have actually PAID Apple, Google and Microsoft MONEY to carry around a GPS tracking device every where we go.

    Face it: privacy as we once knew it is dead, dead, dead.
    dsf3g
    • It's not "privacy as we once knew it",

      it's "the illusion of privacy as we once knew it". I'm not sure we have had any privacy for a long, long time.
      wizard57m-cnet
    • The Wifi piece

      The WiFi piece was designed for convenience but, I can see where it would be abused.

      Still, we need to stop accepting everything we're told and accepting the Government Approved fixes.

      It is like Regan said, the scariest words you will ever here, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help!"
      slickjim
    • You're conflating two different things.

      Corporations collect information from people who give it willingly in exchange for goods or services. If you don't want it collected - it's simple: don't give it. As well, there are laws which restrict what they can do with that data (well, in Europe and Canada anyway - not so sure about the US).

      What the government is doing is collecting information without your permission and without your knowledge for their own use - which is almost always to try and find people to detain and/or arrest.

      These are NOT the same thing and pretending one is ok because of the other is simple-minded.
      The Werewolf!