Mark Zuckerberg's Advice to the NSA: Communicate

Facebook learned the power of transparency the hard way. Now, it wants the government to benefit from its education.
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Last week, Facebook sued the government. "We are joining others in the industry," Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a post on the company's website, "in petitioning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to require the government to permit companies to disclose more information about the volume and types of national security-related orders they receive.” So why did a suit like that come in early September, several months after the initial revelations of the NSA's dealings with tech giants and their data? Because there'd been a breakdown, it seems, of communication. "In recent weeks," Stretch wrote, "it has become clear that the dialogue with the U.S. government that produced some additional transparency at the outset is at this point unlikely to result in more progress."

In a conversation this afternoon with Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet, Zuckerberg elaborated on the suit. And he elaborated, too, on a comment he made last week: that "the government blew it" -- particularly when it came to communicating about the revealed PRISM program to the public. “Some of the government’s statements have been particularly unhelpful,” Zuckerberg told Bennet. “Like, oh, we only spy on non-Americans.” (Facebook, of course, is a global brand.)

But the broader problem, as the CEO explained it, is the NSA's continued obfuscation of its programs, even after their revelation into the public mind and the public conversation. The government did a bad job, essentially, of explaining itself to an indignant user base. "The more transparency and communication that the government can do about how they're requesting data from us," Zuckerberg said, "the better everyone would feel about it. Not only because I believe in transparency, but also because it would be in their interest in terms of resolving this on the Facebook side."

It would seem an irony, at first, that Zuckerberg would be criticizing the government's lack of transparency. Not only because the PRISM program was designed to be secretive, leading to some de-facto filters for sunlight, but also because Facebook, for much of its history, has itself been no stranger to complaints about violated privacy. Often the social network has been the one on the receiving end of "communicate better" exhortations. 

But Facebook, like its young founder, is growing up. It's evolving from a Silicon Valley startup -- hack things! break things! ask for forgiveness, not permission! -- into a creature whose blue-and-white arms wrap around the globe. In undergoing that transformation, the company has gotten very good at communication. It has adapted its ethos of publicness -- sharing as an activity that assumes an almost moral dimension -- into one of publicity. The company, in other words, has become savvy about strategic sharing. It has become great at PR.

In that sense, Facebook, which learned the hard way about the restorative power of transparency, is a fitting advisor to a government agency that has, in its own way -- possibly, we think, though we're not quite sure how -- violated user privacy.

The main challenge the government faces, Zuckerberg suggested, is a classic problem of informational imbalance. The NSA knows everything about the PRISM program; we, the public, know almost nothing. And ignorance, as it so often does, is engendering insecurity, which is, in turn, engendering mistrust: The public has had very little sense of the proportion of the government's PRISM requests, and that has led, understandably, to widespread confusion. When "privacy violation" is involved, we tend to assume the worst. And hen it came to the PRISM requests made specifically of Facebook, Zuckerberg said, "you couldn't get a sense of whether the number is closer to 1,000 or closer to 100 million. Right? I mean, there's hardly any indication of what it was."

In Facebook's conversations with the government, then, "what we pushed for was, at least to start, can we release the aggregate number of requests that we get? And that includes both national security requests, which are confidential, and more day-to-day stuff." And the sum of those requests in the past half-year, Zuckerberg said, ended up being around 9,000. Which is a lot. But which is not a dragnet. "And that, I think, is very useful as a piece of information," Zuckerberg noted. "Because it tells you that it's a lot closer to 1,000 than it is to 100 million."

In other words, that little bit of information puts the broad narrative of the PRISM program -- the sense many Americans have had that Big Brother is watching them, vaguely and menacingly and through their computers -- into perspective. It converts mistrust into data, gives a form to knowledge that is otherwise nebulous. "I think people, otherwise, had no idea," Zuckerberg said. "I mean, is the government just trying to get access to every person's information?"

It is not, the government insists -- but it's hard to blame a revelation-weary public from making that assumption.

It's still unclear exactly how Facebook participates in PRISM, and it's likely that the suit the company filed against the FISC will reveal few details about the technical or otherwise detailed workings of the program. (In an appearance at a conference last week, Marissa Mayer noted that it would be "treason" for her to describe Yahoo's involvement in the program.) But the Facebook suit is its own form of communication -- among other things, it's a coded message to users declaring that, as Zuckerberg reiterated today, "we view it as our job to protect all of the people that use Facebook." 

And that job involves communication: protecting people's sense of security in their digital environments. Which includes the data that inform those environments. Trust is its own kind of currency; its value rises and falls based on a very particular kind of market information. Facebook tracks, intriguingly, user "trust" -- evidence of trust, apparently, as manifested through interactions. When Facebook has been criticized for privacy violations in the past, Zuckerberg said today, "what we found is that that stuff tends to not actually move the needle that much in the grand perceptions around trust." But "the NSA stuff did." And Facebook wasn't alone in that, it seems. The firm does similar tracking for fellow tech giants like Google and Twitter. And following the PRISM revelations, Zuckerberg said, "the trust metrics for all of them went down." 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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