As I write this I’m angry at the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, for their shoddy, shallow coverage of reformgovernmentsurveillance.com (let’s say “RGS” for short). But the trap they fell into is probably attractive to many flavors of media.

The 6PM news report opened with a few seconds of Zuckerberg saying he thought the government was blowing it in this space, then another few words from Zoe Lofgren talking about the NSA putting American business at a disadvantage. (Do ya think?!)

Then there was a sudden 180° shift into hard polemics, with a snotty British professor opining that it was all the companies’ fault because they were sucking up the information, and the NSA wouldn’t come after it if the companies weren’t collecting it, would they? There was some more yammering about hypocrisy, then they went to the next story.

So what’s wrong with that? · Indeed, most (not all) of the RGS companies track a whole lot of information about a whole lot of people, and use it to help sell ads and make money.

So, that granted:

  • What about, you know, the issues? The light cast by the Snowden documents has revealed an egregiously intrusive snooping regime that contravenes what a lot of us understood our constitutions to say. Could the coverage at least acknowledge that this is seen by many as a problem?

  • News flash: A lot of the information that’s useful in selling advertising (clickstream, search terms, likes) is irrelevant to the spooks. They want to know whom you’re talking to and what you’re saying; everything else is secondary.

  • These tax-funded banditos put taps in privately-owned fiber trunks between data centers to pull out raw application data with no regard to who or what it was about.

    By contrast, every one of the RGS companies has published a privacy policy and can expect litigation if they don’t keep those promises; or if the policy turns out to be inadequate in some jurisdiction. Where’s the NSA’s privacy policy?! (Ha ha, kidding).

  • There were some other news angles you think would be interesting. First of all, how did this get wrangled? Getting the egomaniacs on all these exec teams to line up and play nice is a hell of an achievement by, well, someone; who? Also, why isn’t Amazon there? Also, why is Apple’s logo weirdly missing from the headline space? Those are interesting, but they’d have required reporting, not just scraping up a random academic to shovel world-weary cynicism.

For what it’s worth · I know this will sound sort of old-fashioned, but I can tell you from experience that Google is bulging with people who think that everyone’s freedom to say anything to anyone anywhere using the Internet makes the world a significantly better place, and who are deeply angry with the spooks’ shotgun blast at everyone’s presumption of privacy.

So, granted: Pervasive surveillance is bad for the companies who make money on the Internet. That’s a side-effect of being bad for the Internet. And being bad for freedom.

Me: I’m in favor of the rule of laws not men; and not shadowy three-letter-agencies either. So I’m proud to be a teeny-tiny part of the work at places like the IETF on doing a better job at protecting privacy. But at the end of the day this is a political problem, and it’s useful (I think) to have big Internet companies as political allies.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Jarek Piórkowski (Dec 10 2013, at 00:54)

Sorry Tim, y'all blew it. Nothing against you personally - the companies all blew it. Time for "reform government surveillance" media campaigns was six months ago, and better yet, before this became public. If you want an example of a deeply angry person, look at the Lavabit dude. He didn't go along with bullshit - meanwhile most we heard from Google were expletives after a guy was shown a powerpoint slide months after the fact. You ask about Amazon and Apple, others might ask about Google and that data funnel on the inside. Was the company complicit or impotent, did it know about the funnel and do nothing or did it not know someone was slurping data right from their systems? Neither is particularly flattering, and nor is the "we aren't in cahoots with the government quite as much as those other guys" angle.

The internet will survive this just fine, but the big cloud businesses, not too sure about them.

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From: Gavin B (Dec 10 2013, at 01:41)

Maybe the media may make more of today's authors' protest here:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/10/international-bill-digital-rights-petition-text

just one quote:

Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property: it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else: the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.

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From: Gavin B (Dec 10 2013, at 02:36)

CBC wakes up?

http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/snowden-document-shows-canada-set-up-spy-posts-for-nsa-1.2456886

The leaked NSA document being reported exclusively by CBC News reveals Canada is involved with the huge American intelligence agency in clandestine surveillance activities in “approximately 20 high-priority countries."

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From: Nick Carr (Dec 10 2013, at 07:21)

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." -Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google

You're employed by a large media company that, as you say, is in the business of conducting massive personal tracking (ie, surveillance) in the interest of selling ads and making money. Google has always been free to adopt a strict opt-in policy for personal data tracking, with the assumption that no personal data will be collected, stored, shared, or used unless a person expressly asks for that tracking to take place. It has not done that.

You're right that the NSA story shouldn't be framed as a story of corporate hypocrisy. That doesn't mean that the hypocrisy doesn't exist.

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From: Bill Hovingh (Dec 10 2013, at 08:44)

Your quip, "Where's the NSA's privacy policy?" is, in the opinion of this USAn, a very pertinent question. The answer ought to be, but apparently is not, "the 4th Amendment to the Constitution."

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From: len (Dec 13 2013, at 14:30)

An article was posted claiming Facebook collects and analyzes the posts that people begin to type but don't post.

Is that "market research" or just weird?

Like it or not, the Internet was not made with privacy in mind. Security is a different problem. By pushing as much online data toward TCP/IP and http as possible, by ignoring the obvious all those years ago, by rushing to walk in Derra, A'urens, these outcomes were guaranteed. As the twig is bent.. we forged our own chains. Que pena.

As much umbrage as public companies and personalities can muster, try this when there really are people out there who mean you harm. The risks for "the little people" are negligible. The changes and risks for a-listers and people who have to protect their anonymity because their lives and their families' lives depend on it, well that is also much more difficult.

The umbrage must turn to some acceptance because there is less than zero chance three letter agencies of your country and mine, of the Europeans, the Chinese, and so on will give up systems that they lavished decades breeding. How to be private and stay private in the face of ubiquitous surveillance is the next set of problems.

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December 09, 2013
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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.