Do Tech Companies Owe It to the Public to Cooperate With Surveillance?

Private firms have become uneasy about keeping tabs on customers, but they should put collective safety ahead of profit.

Surveillance cameras in Times Square (Eric Thayer/Reuters )

The greatest new threat to American security is that thousands of Westerners will return from the Middle East and Africa with the training and intent to commit acts of terrorism. Given that it is inconceivable to detain all such travelers—who include reporters, humanitarian workers, and businesspeople—keeping an eye on them, for a defined period of time, seems a reasonable security measure. This involves tracking their phone and email communications—in line with laws enacted by Congress and approved by the courts—to determine if these returning Westerners are keeping in touch with ISIS or al-Qaeda, consulting web pages that teach one how to make bombs, or forming local terrorist cells. A major obstacle in proceeding are the major Internet and telecommunication companies—the high tech giants, including Apple, Facebook, and Google—who adamantly object to the new security measures the government is seeking and to many already in place. In doing so, they are placing private profits ahead of the public interest.

For decades, the communication companies, led by AT&T, played a key (and quiet) role in helping to protect national security. The government regularly gained access to their communication hubs and collected billions of phone records, email messages, and other communications to search for patterns that would identify which people pose a risk to the United States. This close cooperation lasted throughout the Cold War and intensified after 9/11. Edward Snowden shattered this cozy relationship by publicly revealing the details of these arrangements and by claiming that they led to abuses.

The Snowden revelations greatly troubled the corporations involved for more reasons than one.  Some nations, like Brazil, considered setting up their own versions of the Internet to protect their citizens from American snooping—a move that would harm the business of companies such as Google and Facebook that greatly benefit from the unified World Wide Web. (Google is used by 1.17 billion people worldwide, while 1.35 billion use Facebook.) These same corporations also feared that Americans would stop using their services if they felt that their privacy was compromised. Many of their CEOs hold the libertarian view that that government regulations are a costly burden and that the government that governs least governs best. And they still seem to hold on to the vision that cyberspace is a new world that can govern itself.

High-tech corporations decided to use high-power encryption methods that will secure privacy for their customers—and that law enforcement and security agencies will be unable or at least will find it very difficult to crack. Some of these measures are designed so that even the companies themselves cannot decrypt the messages. Hence even if a court ruled that there are compelling reasons to seek the records of a person who is suspected to be a terrorist or a serial killer, the companies would be unable to decode the messages. The telephone companies also let it be known that they are unwilling to keep phone records, a reform measure that has been suggested as opposition increased to the NSA keeping these records.

Hence, when President Obama flew to Silicon Valley last week to plead and cajole high-tech CEOs to help counter cyber-attacks—rather than summoning them to Washington—they rejected his overtures out of hand. Eric Grosse, Google’s vice president of security and privacy, warned that “our business depends on trust. If you lose it, it takes years to regain” and stated that “their mission is clearly different than ours.” The CEOs of Facebook, Yahoo, and Google snubbed the president by not even showing up. Apple CEO Tim Cook summed it all up in a recent interview when he stated that the NSA “would have to cart us out in a box” before his company would provide the government with the keys needed to decrypt messages.

I join with those who hold that some surveillance is justified, as long as it is in line with laws enacted by Congress and guidelines approved by the courts, and the implementation of these measures is properly supervised by independent oversight authorities such as inspectors general, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and congressional committees. Such surveillance is especially justified because, in dealing with terrorism, prevention is essential. Terrorists cannot be deterred as criminals typically are, by bringing them to trial and punishing them after the fact, because many commit suicide when they attack. And, because the harm they cause can be so great, the government must seek to stop them before they strike.

If private corporations continue to put their profit motive and ideological beliefs above the needs of the public, I believe the Obama administration—if it can find its backbone—should respond with a market-based solution. It should announce that it will not do business with—not purchase products or services from, not have our diplomats overseas act on behalf of, and not allow federal employees access during work hours to—corporations that do not cooperate with the war against terrorism. Surely some corporations would find it to their advantage to meet the criteria to qualify, and surely others would soon follow, hating to lose the very large volume of government business and related benefits. I grant that it might be painful for government employees to do without Google and Apple for a few days, or even longer, while on the job. But it is a price well-worth paying to convince the Silicon Valley CEOs that a good American citizen balances profit and ideology with concerns with the public interest and the urgent need to head off a new wave of terrorist attacks of the kind evident in Europe.