Assuring the security of private communications regardless of platform – email, VOIP, direct message – should be a top priority of the internet industry in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations that US and UK governments are tapping into the net’s traffic.
The industry needs to at least come together to offer encryption for private communications as protection against government surveillance.
Guarantee of private communications should be a matter of law already. But, of course, it is not. In the US, only our first-class physical mail isprotected from government surveillance without a warrant. In the UK, it was a case of opened mail that led to the closing of the Secret Department of the Post Office. As a matter of principle, the protection afforded our physical mail should extend to any private communication using any means. Just because the authors of the Fourth Amendmentcould not anticipate the internet and email, let alone Facebook, that should not grant government spies a loophole from the founders’ intent.
I argued in my book Public Parts that government may try to portray itself as the protector of our privacy, but it is instead the most dangerous enemy of privacy, for it can gather our information without our knowledge and consent – that is the lesson of Snowden’s leaks – and has the power to use it against us.
So it is left to the internet industry to give us the protection we deserve.
Doing so would not be an act of gallantry but an act of enlightened self-interest for net companies. For without quick and sweeping assurances, I fear the damage is already done to confidence in the cloud, the internet, and especially, American technology companies.
Some of this damage comes from misinformed reporting and speculation in the first days after Snowden’s leak – the presumption that the NSA was “tapping directly” into the servers of Google, Facebook, et al. As soon as that assertion was shown to be specious, then camerevelations that spies do tap directly into internet fiber, presumably via telecom and backbone providers. Through this, we now learn, the US government spent a decade gathering and mapping metadata about our email: who’s talking with whom.
We might wish that telcos would look out for the interests of users and at least fight against the bad government policy of tapping into the net. But we don’t rely on telcos to protect us from bad telco policy.
We rely on internet companies – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL – to provide private communication services and to store and protect our data. So it is up to them to fight for us or we will lose faith in them. It is up to them to do everything they can to gain our trust or I will bet that individuals and corporate customers will fear or flee the cloud. I’ll also bet that especially European governments will pass legislation requiring that European users’ data be kept out of the US.
What can internet companies do? They can start by encrypting our data en route and in storage, foiling the snoops where possible. Then they can work together on the hairy details necessary to enable easy end-to-end encryption for users.
Such encryption could degrade the personalized services net companies are offering. If Google can’t read the boarding pass in my email, can it give me a link to it in Google Now? That’s why encryption will often be optional. But better to have the option than not.
Net companies also need to band together to continue to lobby Washington for transparency about government data demands. Google is right that what the government is allowing now is utterly uninformative. The companies also need to be as open as legally possible about the principles they uphold when challenging those warrants.
When faced with a legal warrant in a legitimate investigation related to national security, I don’t want internet companies to become roadblocks to effective intelligence and law enforcement. But given the apparent overreach of government and given its secrecy to date, net companies would be wise to be quite public and unified in their defense of ourrights.
These efforts don’t solve the problem of government surveillance and secrecy. There is still the matter of the government obtaining meta data about phone calls and emails and no doubt other communication. There is still the threat of other governments also tapping into the net (all the more reason to encrypt).
But net companies need to band together now to do whatever they can to better protect us. For if they won’t do it, who will? And if we lose faith in the internet, who will suffer? They will.