How NSA Surveillance Could End The Web As We Know It

nsalogoRecently I heard my husband angrily muttering at his computer, and while this wasn’t particularly unusual (we all love shaking our fists at the internet, after all), what he was angry about was different indeed. He is, as are many of us, frustrated with the government in general and the National Security Administration (NSA) in particular.

As we all learn more about how the NSA has been monitoring both citizens of this country and our allies abroad in the wake of the Snowden leaks about the massive surveillance operation called Prism, I think many of us are rather horrified at the depth and scope of the surveillance even as we willingly give away much of our privacy while using popular social media networks. After all, over 13 million Americans never bother to alter their Facebook privacy settings, therefore making every status update and “like” public information, so it’s fairly hypocritical for those same folks to complain about the government viewing what they’ve shared publicly.

We Americans, of course, are nothing if not hypocritical, however. (Trust me, I’m including myself in that group.) But while we might have been frustrated and horrified, the nation’s largest tech companies that run the internet were accused flat-out in the Snowden documents of willingly handing all their data over to the NSA even though not a single company had heard about Prism, according to this week’s fascinating article in Wired by Steven Levy.

“We had 90 minutes to respond,” says Facebook’s head of security, Joe Sullivan. No one at the company had ever heard of a program called Prism. And the most damning implication—that Facebook and the other companies granted the NSA direct access to their servers in order to suck up vast quantities of information—seemed outright wrong. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was taken aback by the charge and asked his exec­utives whether it was true. Their answer: no.

Similar panicked conversations were taking place at Google, Apple, and Microsoft. “We asked around: Are there any surreptitious ways of getting information?” says Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel. “No.”

According to Levy, the big tech companies pushed back hard (particularly Yahoo, interestingly enough) but it was a challenge, and the government also refused to allow tech companies to share information about the government data requests. This was a problem, of course, because it’s bad PR and not just to the big tech companies users, but also for the potential investors, particularly those not based here in the US.

Tech companies also grew more vocal in their requests to publicize the number of FISA requests they received. They were only allowed to release reports that tally all government requests, including those from civil court and law enforcement. (The raw numbers, often in the low thousands, don’t seem scary, but they lack context.) Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft petitioned the FISA court to loosen the gags, and a long list of technology firms, including Apple and LinkedIn, submitted amicus briefs in support. But the government filed passionately opposing briefs and prevailed.

But it wasn’t just tech companies that had a problem; it was our allies who felt violated and abused by the NSA snooping, and many of those countries are suggesting setting up data walls that keep their citizens’ data inside their country, rather than stored in the largely US based tech companies. This would create “splinternets” or large portions of the web that didn’t talk to each other.

To most people familiar with Internet protocols, this sounds crazy. Google’s Drummond refers to the result—dozens of independent Internets that don’t com­municate with one another—as “splinternets.” “It’s not realistic and very short­sighted,” LinkedIn’s Rottenberg says. “How is that even implemented? If I’m a Brazilian resident and I’m traveling, I can’t get my data?”

At the close of his article, Mr. Levy concludes that ultimately, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised. We are amazingly willing to give away our private information to companies what we buy, who our doctor is, who our friends are, and what ideals we support – so it shouldn’t be news that the government might also want – and be able to access that information.

It’s hard to say what the long lasting implications the Snowden leaks will have on the web overall, but the idea of “splinternets” is worrying. One of the greatest joys of the internet is the way it provides access and information to whoever wants it as well as offering a voice to those that might not otherwise be heard.

It would be a shame if our internal surveillance programs by the NSA which Mr. Levy also points out might not be quite as invasive as we’ve been led to believe ruined the web for everyone.

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