Since Edward Snowden began leaking NSA documents to the press last June, President Obama has met with the civil liberties board tasked with protecting Americans' privacy three times. As of Friday, executives of tech companies have gotten the same number of meetings with Obama. The tech companies will hopefully have more.
That sounds like a troll, but it isn't meant to be. Who should advocate for change?You have a Congress that represents Americans that is largely agreeable to / complicit with the expansion of NSA surveillance. You have an independent privacy board that has a theoretical constituency of 300 million Americans but functionally represents no one. And you have tech companies that continue to be stressed and furious about the revelations — furious about what was revealed perhaps less than their being revealed.
The economic implications for tech companies have been made clear repeatedly but, pegged to the White House visit from the CEOs of Google and Facebook, The New York Times recompiled the costs. "It is impossible to see now the full economic ramifications of the spying disclosures," reporter Claire Cain Miller writes, "but the pieces are beginning to add up as businesses question the trustworthiness of American technology products." The government of Brazil dropped Microsoft. IBM is moving some cloud-based operations overseas to avoid the gateways at America's borders that the NSA is obviously keeping a close eye upon. Snowden revealed that the NSA was tapping international fiber optic cables and reading unencrypted information moving between Yahoo's servers. That it was spoofing Facebook to install malware on people's computers. That prompted Mark Zuckerberg to call Obama and complain, perhaps setting Friday's meeting in motion.
Most significantly, Snowden revealed that the NSA runs a data collection program called PRISM that internal NSA documents indicate was automated and undertaken in coordination with tech companies. Those companies — including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo — dispute the contention, having repeatedly insisted that they were not familiar with the name PRISM and didn't grant the NSA access to data. Earlier this week, a minor storm erupted when the NSA's general counsel, Rajesh De, told the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that tech companies knew about the agency's surveillance requests. Which of course they did, they get subpoenas. But it became a moment in which tech companies again had to explain their position: they were being spied on, too. Every time Google has to explain that it isn't working hand-in-hand with the NSA, it's safe to assume that another corporate customer decides to scale back its use of the company's services.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, incidentally, is that oversight agency that is meant to be the voice of the American public. It's tasked with advising the White House on how extensive intelligence agencies' surveillance should be. It only came into existence last year, after being understaffed under Bush and during Obama's first term. (It originated from the 9/11 Commission and began work in 2006.) It wasn't a priority for the government, since its only purpose was to review how the government was doing its job. Most Americans haven't heard of it. It released a report on surveillance earlier this year — a release that was substantially muted when Obama released his privacy reforms a few days beforehand.
Facebook, on the other hand, everyone has heard of. Facebook has over 150 million users in the U.S., half the country, and has a market capitalization of over $170 billion (as of writing). It is a massive player in the domestic internet and a fairly big player in the economy. Google has nearly as large a user base. Google and Apple are among the largest companies in America. Between them, phones running their operating system are in the pockets and hands of almost everyone within a one-mile radius of you right now. That's power that the PCLOB cannot match. Those are constituencies that the PCLOB can't mobilize.
Of course, the PCLOB only exists because the 9/11 Commission apparently didn't trust Congress to adequately protect the civil liberties of Americans as intelligence agencies became stronger. It's Congress that should be the voice of Americans in the room with Obama, but many members of Congress voted to create and expand the tools that Obama inherited and expanded in 2009. And voters don't seem particularly inclined to pressure Congress to act. There have been baby steps: Rep. Justin Amash's push to cut NSA funding and, on Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's apparent weakening on her strong support of the NSA's tools. But Congress' bottom line comes up every two years in November. Facebook's is a daily concern.
Which is why it's fair to ask: Why shouldn't those seeking reform be comfortable with having tech companies act as their advocates? Sure, tech companies have their own privacy issues, but, as Snowden himself pointed out, they can't "put warheads on foreheads." Obama has responded to aggression expansionism from Russia primarily by trying to hurt its economy. Why not fight the aggressive expansion of NSA spying by leveraging economics as well.
If we're going to have a country in which corporations wield unprecedented influence, might as well consider the upside.