Don’t Listen to Google and Facebook: The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership Is Still Going Strong

And real corporate security is still impossible.
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A surveillance camera outside Google's China headquarters in 2010 (Jason Lee / Reuters)

If you’ve been reading the news recently, you might think that corporate America is doing its best to thwart NSA surveillance.

Google just announced that it is encrypting Gmail when you access it from your computer or phone, and between data centers. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg personally called President Obama to complain about the NSA using Facebook as a means to hack computers, and Facebook's Chief Security Officer explained to reporters that the attack technique has not worked since last summer. Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and others are now regularly publishing "transparency reports," listing approximately how many government data requests the companies have received and complied with.

On the government side, last week the NSA's General Counsel Rajesh De seemed to have thrown those companies under a bus by stating that—despite their denials—they knew all about the NSA's collection of data under both the PRISM program and some unnamed "upstream" collections on the communications links.

Yes, it may seem like the the public/private surveillance partnership has frayed—but, unfortunately, it is alive and well. The main focus of massive Internet companies and government agencies both still largely align: to keep us all under constant surveillance. When they bicker, it’s mostly role-playing designed to keep us blasé about what's really going on.

Two Surveillance Regimes, Still in Force

The U.S. intelligence community is still playing word games with us. The NSA collects our data based on four different legal authorities: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, Executive Order 12333 of 1981 and modified in 2004 and 2008, Section 215 of the Patriot Act of 2001, and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) of 2008. Be careful when someone from the intelligence community uses the caveat "not under this program," or "not under this authority"; almost certainly it means that whatever it is they're denying is done under some other program or authority. So when De said that companies knew about NSA collection under Section 702, it doesn't mean they knew about the other collection programs.

The big Internet companies know of PRISM—although not under that code name—because that's how the program works; the NSA serves them with FISA orders. Those same companies did not know about any of the other surveillance against their users conducted on the far more permissive EO 12333. Google and Yahoo did not know about MUSCULAR, the NSA's secret program to eavesdrop on their trunk connections between data centers. Facebook did not know about QUANTUMHAND, the NSA's secret program to attack Facebook users. And none of the target companies knew that the NSA was harvesting their users' address books and buddy lists.

These companies are certainly pissed that the publicity surrounding the NSA's actions is undermining their users' trust in their services, and they're losing money because of it. Cisco, IBM, cloud service providers, and others have announced that they're losing billions, mostly in foreign sales.

These companies are doing their best to convince users that their data is secure. But they're relying on their users not understanding what real security looks like. IBM's letter to its clients last week is an excellent example. The letter lists five "simple facts" that it hopes will mollify its customers, but the items are so qualified with caveats that they do the exact opposite to anyone who understands the full extent of NSA surveillance. And IBM’s spending $1.2B on data centers outside the U.S. will only reassure customers who don’t realize that National Security Letters require a company to turn over data, regardless of where in the world it is stored.

Why Real Security Is Impossible

Google’s recent actions, and similar actions of many Internet companies, will definitely improve its users' security against surreptitious government collection programs—both the NSA's and other governments'—but their assurances deliberately ignores the massive security vulnerability built into its services by design. Google, and by extension, the U.S. government, still has access to your communications on Google's servers.

Google could change that. It could encrypt your e-mail so only you could decrypt and read it. It could provide for secure voice and video so no one outside the conversations could eavesdrop.

It doesn’t. And neither does Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, or any of the others.

Why not? They don’t partly because they want to keep the ability to eavesdrop on your conversations. Surveillance is still the business model of the Internet, and every one of those companies wants access to your communications and your metadata. Your private thoughts and conversations are the product they sell to their customers. We also have learned that they read your e-mail for their own internal investigations.

But even if this were not true, even if—for example—Google were willing to forgo data mining your e-mail and video conversations in exchange for the marketing advantage it would give it over Microsoft, it still won't offer you real security. It can't.

The biggest Internet companies don’t offer real security because the U.S. government won't permit it.

This isn't paranoia. We know that the U.S. government ordered the secure e-mail provider Lavabit to turn over its master keys and compromise every one of its users. We know that the U.S. government convinced Microsoft—either through bribery, coercion, threat, or legal compulsion—to make changes in how Skype operates, to make eavesdropping easier.

We don't know what sort of pressure the U.S. government has put on Google and the others. We don't know what secret agreements those companies have reached with the NSA. We do know the NSA's BULLRUN program to subvert Internet cryptography was successful against many common protocols. Did the NSA demand Google's keys, as it did with Lavabit? Did its Tailored Access Operations group break into to Google's servers and steal the keys?

We just don't know.

The best we have are caveat-laden pseudo-assurances. At SXSW earlier this month, CEO Eric Schmidt tried to reassure the audience by saying that he was "pretty sure that information within Google is now safe from any government's prying eyes." A more accurate statement might be, "Your data is safe from governments, except for the ways we don't know about and the ways we cannot tell you about. And, of course, we still have complete access to it all, and can sell it at will to whomever we want." That’s a lousy marketing pitch, but as long as the NSA is allowed to operate using secret court orders based on secret interpretations of secret law, it'll never be any different.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the others are already on the record as supporting these legislative changes. It would be better if they openly acknowledged their users’ insecurity and increased their pressure on the government to change, rather than trying to fool their users and customers.

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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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