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It is not just the data that matters in this NSA surveillance mess

Posted: , by Maxwell R.

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It is not just the data that matters in this NSA surveillance mess
Several days ago, we broached the issue of Google and trust in the consumer arena, and how people perceive Google’s use of personal data in its operations to generate advertising revenue. One of the initial references was made to Sundar Pichai’s answer to the question of why someone should not be nervous about what Google does.  The debates that followed among everyone in the comments were entertaining and informative. However, one thing that was not observed was that Mr. Pichai did not really answer the question.

We were going to discuss reasons why people do not trust Google, but in light of the news over the past couple days, the issue has taken a different shape. By itself, it does not matter for many people in the US who are now trying to grasp the depth of the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, it appears that these massive depots of information storage, Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al, are simply too attractive a source for data mining outside their intended purpose (advertising) and are finding another use given the activities being performed under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA, passed in 1978).

When you read the statements from the companies involved, one thing should be apparent, data was indeed shared. Moreover, from the looks of things, it seems like these big players, most notably Google and Facebook, were, in fact, working with the NSA to actually build separate portals with which the government could request information and the companies would deposit said information. To put it plainly, they made it easier to transfer data.

This is NSA's massive data center in Bluffdale, Utah

This is NSA's massive data center in Bluffdale, Utah

Twitter was also approached by the government to develop a similar mechanism, however Twitter declined to do so. FISA requests are legal, and they are secret, recipients are often under a gag order to not even acknowledge an order’s existence, but they do not mandate that it be easier for the government to grab information.

Indeed, it looks like instead of a back door (something that so many paranoid people worry about), the government was given a back room at some of these companies. Sometimes, the government has a front row seat too. According to The New York Times, an NSA agent visited a tech company in Silicon Valley to observe a suspect involved in a cyberattack. The agent installed government software on the servers and remained there for weeks downloading data onto government hardware. Sometimes, the NSA is seeking real-time transmission of data.

Google, Twitter and Microsoft are well known for issuing transparency reports. In fact, the recent report by Google provided a glimpse of the type of activity it deals with regarding requests via National Security Letters from the FBI. However, that activity paled in comparison to the breadth and depth of surveillance apparently being performed by the NSA.

As it is, the carefully worded statements against the reality of action taken do just enough to skirt a perception of complicity, but these actions in the wake of their rhetoric are just as worrisome as the government surveillance. Phrases like not allowing “direct access” and not providing a “back door” are meaningless in the scheme of things. A back door would infer access that the host is unaware of. Direct access means unfettered access. Just because there was no direct access (arguably refuted by the Times article), that does not mean there was no access. Just because Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg have never heard of PRISM, that does not mean they were not acutely aware of data mining activity by the government.

The NSA is headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland which lies outside Washington, DC

The NSA is headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland which lies outside Washington, DC

So in a broader context as to why people distrust Google (or Facebook, or Microsoft, ad infinitum), it is not so much what they do with the data we entrust to them, it is dichotomy of their words versus their deeds. Calls for transparency ring hollow when these companies do not combine resources to actually make that a reality. Instead, they hide behind a government blanket as if to say, “We were helpless to do anything.”

Larry Page bemoaned the need for openness when speaking at Google I/O last month. He used Google+ to share insight about a health condition that affected his vocal chords. He felt such sharing could become a boilerplate for others that may be seeking treatment for other conditions in a utopian open environment. Privacy issues aside, Mr. Page repeatedly advocates his vision to a utopian world with few barriers for information. He advocated again today the need for transparency (as did Mark Zuckerberg).

Taking the legality aside for a moment, and thinking back to the idea of trust, the issue is not simply that the data was mined by the government to look for patterns in the noise, what should be just as glaring to you is how these companies are reacting to it. They are all denying involvement and calling on the government for more transparency when the trend of activity shows everything becoming more opaque, especially since it is known that data on "innocent" people was gathered "by mistake."  When coupled with government surveillance of US based journalists, these activities are certainly the tip of the iceberg. 

Google was able to surpass one hurdle by being able to acknowledge the NSLs it received did in fact exist. If this activity is widespread enough, there is nothing stopping these companies from taking the first step. Sunlight is an amazing disinfectant, and as the US government is supposed to be a reflection of the people that elect it, if those people (including these companies) want more transparency, it may very well be their burden to provide it.

references: The New York Times, TechCrunch, Foreign Policy, EFF, NBC News

Below is a short video with the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper responding to an inquiry from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden on whether NSA collects data on Americans.  The answer is in direct conflict with what we know now.

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posted on 08 Jun 2013, 05:36 6

1. Sniggly (Posts: 7305; Member since: 05 Dec 2009)

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the main issue isn't with the companies involved, it's the government that's the root of the fu.cking issue. They're the ones with guns and jails. Google by itself has no malintent regarding any of their customers, but when the feds come knocking, there's not much they or anyone can do. As the reports state, pretty much every major company is involved in this fiasco.

The pattern of evil is with the government. They're obsessed with secrecy for themselves, but god forbid we want their eyes off us average citizens. Look at Wikileaks and the way the government wanted those involved strung up for treason and espionage, when all Wikileaks did was reveal embarrassing info about the government. Look at Bradley Manning, who exposed corruption and coverups in the military. His life hangs in the balance, after years of solitary confinement and torture he's being court martialed. And all of this data mining was at the request of-you guessed it-the government.

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 05:38 1

2. papss (unregistered)

Good article Maxwell, that's my thing, it's not the company but that the company could make an easy marketplace to gather my data

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 08:45 7

4. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

Frankly, I don't trust a word out of anyone's mouth who is involved in this scandal. The corporations maintain the resource for the government and the government helps itself to the data as and when it sees fit. There is no 4th Ammendment to the US Constitution any longer.

Welcome to life in the corporatocracy.

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 10:00 1

5. threed61 (Posts: 245; Member since: 27 May 2011)

Throughout all of this I have never understood why it does not bother people more that private companies collect even more information about all of us than any government. And for the most part, they are no more open than governments are about what they do with it and more willing to sell it.

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 10:43 1

7. Jonathan41 (Posts: 532; Member since: 22 Mar 2012)

RELAX PEOPLE. This is not a big deal at all. Blown way out of proportion.

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 11:17 4

9. 14545 (Posts: 1671; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

If you enjoy life under the rule of government then feel free to leave for NK or china. I want LIBERTY. I WANT AN ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT THAT CAN MAINTAIN A BUDGETS UNDER 1 BILLION DOLLARS.

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 11:16 3

8. 14545 (Posts: 1671; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

ARE YOU LISTENING NOW? I said this when MH posted the original article, I TRUST GOOGLE, BUT I DON"T TRUST THE GOVERNMENT. Now do you see why? Wake up people, it's time to start hanging our politicians for treason, not some peon in the military who leaked our sh!tty officials dirty laundry. IF OUR OFFICIALS DIDN"T HAVE DIRTY LAUNDRY, THERE WOULD BE NOTHING TO LEAK. GET IT FOLKS? It's time we have a cleansing of these slimy, greasy, jerkoff politicians and get back to the roots our country and it's constitution. EITHER ADHERE TO THE COTUS OR GTFO OF OFFICE, YOU A$$H0LES. If we had never given the government this much authority to trample the constitution, then we wouldn't have leaks like this every six months. How many times do we, "the people", have to get burnt by these scum for us to learn that there isn't an elected politician on either side that isn't a psychopath and needs to be hung for treason? WaKE UP

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 15:12

10. MartyK (Posts: 936; Member since: 11 Apr 2012)

Google is not the problem..here is the problem

A "top secret" order by a U.S. secret court — known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which was set up in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978..

the Patriot Act in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, and in 2008, with the FISA Amendments Act, following the NSA's widespread unwarranted wiretapping campaign.

So you see, they want to remove all your rights, to make you feel secure and warm...smh

The terrible death of 3,000.. force them to hold hostage a nation of 400 million

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 18:46

11. Valloi (Posts: 4; Member since: 01 Jun 2013)

I am the first person to tell you that I love my country, but I don't trust my government. That said, I do find it troubling that so many people are so quick to point the finger at the government, yet are so quick to dismiss the other two obvious players in this fiasco: the people (we are the ones who elected these officials) and the companies that provide the pipeline. Everyone is to blame. We wanted convenience, simplicity, etc. We traded our secure and our privacy for it. We should not be surprised or even shocked that once we willingly give certain information and power away, whether because we want security, simplicity, or convenience, we will not get it back, because no matter how much we complain, this pendulum will not swing back the other way. I value my privacy above many things, but I have long realized that it is possibly gone forever.

posted on 08 Jun 2013, 19:53

12. Jodabro (Posts: 35; Member since: 01 Dec 2011)

:-) These problems will always be alive. People die but spirits live forever. Terrorism will not go away, power thirst will not go away, the desire for liberty will not go away, and so on. As a republic that has lasted longer then any other, it will fall soon. It is not a government designed to last. Especially when the fastest vehicle of today is the internet and can get us from country to country in a second. All country governments are behind the eight ball, there needs to be a world governement to be established in order to keep from the awaiting chaos. But that is the beginning of the end of man.

posted on 09 Jun 2013, 18:09

15. alpinejason (Posts: 262; Member since: 06 Sep 2011)

and everybody talks about other countries being corrupt.we are right up there with everybody else

posted on 10 Jun 2013, 20:09

16. Ta1k0n (Posts: 1; Member since: 03 Feb 2013)

The Constitution is still the Law of the land, and the the Declaration of Independence is still the Legal authority of the land. We are Americans. Don't tread on us!

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