A Fraying of the Public/Private Surveillance Partnership

The secret eavesdropping ecosystem is breaking down, thanks to the Snowden documents.
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Antennae (Reuters).

The public/private surveillance partnership between the NSA and corporate data collectors is starting to fray. The reason is sunlight. The publicity resulting from the Snowden documents has made companies think twice before allowing the NSA access to their users' and customers' data.

Pre-Snowden, there was no downside to cooperating with the NSA. If the NSA asked you for copies of all your Internet traffic, or to put backdoors into your security software, you could assume that your cooperation would forever remain secret. To be fair, not every corporation cooperated willingly. Some fought in court. But it seems that a lot of them, telcos and backbone providers especially, were happy to give the NSA unfettered access to everything. Post-Snowden, this is changing. Now that many companies' cooperation has become public, they're facing a PR backlash from customers and users who are upset that their data is flowing to the NSA. And this is costing those companies business.

How much is unclear. In July, right after the PRISM revelations, the Cloud Security Alliance reported that US cloud companies could lose $35 billion over the next three years, mostly due to losses of foreign sales. Surely that number has increased as outrage over NSA spying continues to build in Europe and elsewhere. There is no similar report for software sales, although I have attended private meetings where several large US software companies complained about the loss of foreign sales. On the hardware side, IBM is losing business in China. The US telecom companies are also suffering: AT&T is losing business worldwide.

This is the new reality. The rules of secrecy are different, and companies have to assume that their responses to NSA data demands will become public. This means there is now a significant cost to cooperating, and a corresponding benefit to fighting.

Over the past few months, more companies have woken up to the fact that the NSA is basically treating them as adversaries, and are responding as such. In mid-October, it became public that the NSA was collecting e-mail address books and buddy lists from Internet users logging into different service providers. Yahoo, which didn't encrypt those user connections by default, allowed the NSA to collect much more of its data than Google, which did. That same day, Yahoo announced that it would implement SSL encryption by default for all of its users. Two weeks later, when it became public that the NSA was collecting data on Google users by eavesdropping on the company's trunk connections between its data centers, Google announced that it would encrypt those connections.

We recently learned that Yahoo fought a government order to turn over data. Lavabit fought its order as well. Apple is now tweaking the government. And we think better of those companies because of it.

Now Lavabit, which closed down its e-mail service rather than comply with the NSA's request for the master keys that would compromise all of its customers, has teamed with Silent Circle to develop a secure e-mail standard that is resistant to these kinds of tactics.

The Snowden documents made it clear how much the NSA relies on corporations to eavesdrop on the Internet. The NSA didn't build a massive Internet eavesdropping system from scratch. It noticed that the corporate world was already eavesdropping on every Internet user -- surveillance is the business model of the Internet, after all -- and simply got copies for itself.

Now, that secret ecosystem is breaking down.  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote about transparency, saying "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." In this case, it seems to be working.

These developments will only help security. Remember that while Edward Snowden has given us a window into the NSA's activities, these sorts of tactics are probably also used by other intelligence services around the world. And today's secret NSA programs become tomorrow's PhD theses, and the next day's criminal hacker tools. It’s impossible to build an Internet where the good guys can eavesdrop, and the bad guys cannot. We have a choice between an Internet that is vulnerable to all attackers, or an Internet that is safe from all attackers. And a safe and secure Internet is in everyone's best interests, including the US's.

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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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