The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet

Technology companies have to fight for their users, or they'll eventually lose them.
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Washington Post

It turns out that the NSA's domestic and world-wide surveillance apparatus is even more extensive than we thought. Bluntly: The government has commandeered the Internet. Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we've learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it's easier that way.

I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight.

Do you remember those old spy movies, when the higher ups in government decide that the mission is more important than the spy's life? It's going to be the same way with you. You might think that your friendly relationship with the government means that they're going to protect you, but they won't. The NSA doesn't care about you or your customers, and will burn you the moment it's convenient to do so.

We're already starting to see that. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are pleading with the government to allow them to explain details of what information they provided in response to National Security Letters and other government demands. They've lost the trust of their customers, and explaining what they do -- and don't do -- is how to get it back. The government has refused; they don't care.

It will be the same with you. There are lots more high-tech companies who have cooperated with the government. Most of those company names are somewhere in the thousands of documents that Edward Snowden took with him, and sooner or later they'll be released to the public. The NSA probably told you that your cooperation would forever remain secret, but they're sloppy. They'll put your company name on presentations delivered to thousands of people: government employees, contractors, probably even foreign nationals. If Snowden doesn't have a copy, the next whistleblower will.

This is why you have to fight. When it becomes public that the NSA has been hoovering up all of your users' communications and personal files, what's going to save you in the eyes of those users is whether or not you fought. Fighting will cost you money in the short term, but capitulating will cost you more in the long term.

Already companies are taking their data and communications out of the US.

The extreme case of fighting is shutting down entirely. The secure e-mail service Lavabit did that last week, abruptly. Ladar Levison, that site's owner, wrote on his homepage: "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision."

The same day, Silent Circle followed suit, shutting down their email service in advance of any government strong-arm tactics: "We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now." I realize that this is extreme. Both of those companies can do it because they're small. Google or Facebook couldn't possibly shut themselves off rather than cooperate with the government. They're too large; they're public. They have to do what's economically rational, not what's moral.

But they can fight. You, an executive in one of those companies, can fight. You'll probably lose, but you need to take the stand. And you might win. It's time we called the government's actions what it really is: commandeering. Commandeering is a practice we're used to in wartime, where commercial ships are taken for military use, or production lines are converted to military production. But now it's happening in peacetime. Vast swaths of the Internet are being commandeered to support this surveillance state.

If this is happening to your company, do what you can to isolate the actions. Do you have employees with security clearances who can't tell you what they're doing? Cut off all automatic lines of communication with them, and make sure that only specific, required, authorized acts are being taken on behalf of government. Only then can you look your customers and the public in the face and say that you don't know what is going on -- that your company has been commandeered.

Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis recently wrote in The Guardian: "Technology companies: now is the moment when you must answer for us, your users, whether you are collaborators in the US government's efforts to 'collect it all' -- our every move on the internet or whether you, too, are victims of its overreach."

So while I'm sure it's cool to have a secret White House meeting with President Obama -- I'm talking to you, Google, Apple, AT&T, and whoever else was in the room -- resist. Attend the meeting, but fight the secrecy. Whose side are you on?

The NSA isn't going to remain above the law forever. Already public opinion is changing, against the government and their corporate collaborators. If you want to keep your users' trust, demonstrate that you were on their side.

Presented by

Bruce Schneier is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the chief technology officer of Co3 Systems, a computer-security firm. A security and technology specialist, his latest book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive.

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