Several weeks ago, the
ran stories about the NSA, revealing the agency's forays into "big
data" and its attempts to acquire ever-larger quantities of that
data off of corporate servers. The big revelation was PRISM, a
partnership with American tech companies -- alleged to include
), and others -- through which they provided the government with,
if not a backdoor, at least a back window. This information was
leaked to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden,
who argued that
"the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are
right or wrong."
That may be, but the public also needs 20 gigabytes of free cloud
storage. Having sacrificed privacy for the convenience of social
media and the cloud, it's unlikely that we'll draw a line in the
sand when it comes to security. The Patriot Act is 12 years old,
polls suggest that Americans don't mind surveillance
so long as it's their party doing it
, and a cynic might argue that criticism of the NSA has more to do
with the next election cycle than with any qualms over privacy.
The fallout may be more severe overseas, where American tech
companies were under political pressure long before PRISM came to
light. In Europe, ongoing concerns over data privacy have now been
vindicated, while China finds itself in a position to retaliate for
actions taken by Congress last year.
In October 2012, two Chinese conglomerates -
Huawei Technology Co Ltd
were condemned via Congressional report
, and effectively banned from selling network equipment in the US.
This came several years after
the NSA reportedly scuttled
a deal between Huawei and
), over fears that the Chinese government would use Huawei's
infrastructure "to monitor US communications." China responded with
reprisals against American companies, and
Cisco Systems, Inc.
(CSCO) was ousted from one of the country's backbone networks.
Several months later,
(AAPL) came under attack in state media. The NSA leak provides
China with ammunition for further action against American
companies, the only question being whether - and when - they'll
decide to use it.
Europe, meanwhile, has taken data privacy more seriously than we
have in the US, with Brussels adopting a regulatory approach over
the last few years. The tech industry
has lobbied hard
-- and with some success -- to soften the EU's stance, but NSA-gate
comes at an inconvenient time, and rubs a tender spot. American
tech firms do much of their business across the Atlantic, but US
law affords little protection to European customers. This worries
the EU, which earlier this year
attempted to block FISA
(the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) from applying in its
territory. The existence of PRISM seems to justify their concerns.
When details of the program were revealed, Facebook and others
issued press releases, stating that they had only followed US law
-- which, the NSA was quick to point out, protects US citizens.
This was tantamount to an admission that foreigners were the
No law requires American companies to make it easy for the
government to seize information -- and Google, at least, has denied
that it did -- but Washington wouldn't find it difficult to compel
them to do so. Silicon Valley is the frequent target of antitrust
lawsuits, cyber bills are a common occurrence in Congress, and
government contracts drive a large amount of revenue. It might be
hoped that the NSA has no sway over the other branches of
government -- and we might similarly hope that the IRS is impartial
-- but then, AT&T was threatened with the loss of its public
sector business in the dustup over Huawei.
The leak has some larger implications. It demonstrates how global
companies are at risk of being turned into national assets. No
government ever needed to be convinced about the virtues of
protectionism, and with the arrival of big data, foreign firms have
become a security risk. Can we trust them not to share information
with their governments? Can they trust us? We're finding that these
are serious questions even in today's relatively peaceful world. At
a more difficult time, they would become pivotal.
Big data is now used to foil terrorist attacks, and to
. It might just as well be used to win a war. For governments and
businesses both, it has become something irresistible. Its presence
guarantees its use, and there is little at this point to
distinguish use from abuse, or to discourage the latter. The
advantages of big data could prove to be ephemeral, as the
companies that collect it find themselves marginalized
internationally, and the individuals who provide it become more
discrete. On the other hand, the costs -- to openness, personal
autonomy, and the competitiveness of global tech companies -- will
probably be sticking around.
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