Friday, July 19, 2013

Betrayed by Microsoft

The revelations that have emerged thanks to Edward Snowden’s leaking of top secret government documents are a gift that just keeps giving. They chronicle a vast surveillance effort conducted by the National Security Agency against both Americans and non-Americans.

Last week The Guardian newspaper revealed that Microsoft had lied to customers about how its systems protected their privacy, particularly when they used Skype, the voice-over-IP service that the company bought in 2011. “Microsoft has collaborated closely with U.S. intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s encryption,” an article in the newspaper reported.

Microsoft has defended itself by pointing out that it had an obligation under the law to comply with government requests. Perhaps, but that doesn’t make the company’s assurances to its customers about their privacy any less deceitful. Moreover, it only confirmed that tech companies had opened their servers to the NSA under the Prism program. In the case of foreign customers, no warrant is needed to gather information, while the NSA can apparently collect the communications of Americans if targeting a foreign national overseas.

Most disturbing, it is odd that companies that have advocated, and derived considerable profit from, the free flow of information, and have held this up as a liberating experience, should so supinely bend to secret government directives embodying precisely the opposite.

The attitude toward NSA surveillance appears to be changing in the United States, particularly with respect to material collected on Americans. At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this week, members of Congress threatened not to renew legislative authority authorizing the surveillance, which exceeded what the lawmakers had originally intended. “This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately,” said John Con­yers, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee. Another Democratic member of Congress, Zoe Lofgren, stated, “I think very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally and needs to be reined in.”

This shift in the mood of Congress appears to reflect the changing mood of the American public as well as anger with the dissembling of American officials. Despite the fact that many Americans initially appeared more sanguine about NSA surveillance, polls suggest another story. A poll recently conducted among registered voters by the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University showed that 55 percent of respondents considered Snowden to be a whistle blower, implying that he legitimately exposed abuse by the government, against 34 percent who said he was a traitor. By a margin of 45 percent to 40 percent, respondents said the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties as part of the war on terrorism.

Meanwhile, American civil liberties organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have sued the U.S. government for conducting the surveillance program. But their focus has been on the collection of metadata, or the information rather than the content of communications. “Collecting those details – ‘metadata’ that reveals who people talk to, for how long, how often and possibly from where – allows the government to paint an alarmingly detailed picture of Americans’ private lives,” wrote ACLU legal fellow Brett Kaufman.

Americans and the Congress may be starting to understand the full impact of a system that has generated unprecedented levels of intrusion in the private lives of individuals, without any suspicion of wrongdoing and against the letter and spirit of the Fourth Amendment of the American constitution. The amendment unambiguously affirms the right of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and it states that no warrants shall be issued “but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The edifice created by the government includes a secret supervisory court, whose decisions are secret, overseeing a metastasizing surveillance effort that has been hidden from the public. Secret courts and decisions are the stuff of Stalinist nightmares, not of thriving democracies, and keeping Americans in the dark about programs involving them is the antithesis of democratic behavior.  

As useful as is the debate about domestic surveillance by the NSA, there has been almost no discussion of the far more invasive programs to gather information on non-Americans, which is precisely what Microsoft was helping the NSA to collect. And here the international reaction, while slow and disorganized, could have a major impact not so much on the government, as on the fortunes of American tech companies assisting the government’s surveillance efforts.

European citizens have been urged to shift away from American Internet companies. In Germany, the NSA scandal is turning into an election issue for Chancellor Angela Merkel. This week she declared, “Germany has made it clear that it wants Internet companies to tell us in Europe to whom information is being transferred.”

Already, private search engines such as StartPage and Ixquick have seen their traffic expand. Both are metasearch engines, meaning they feed search terms into other search engines, but without leaving the browsing trail that Google and others store. At the same time, a free browser such as Tor, which allows one to surf the Internet anonymously, is becoming much more appealing, and it is even being distributed by such institutions as the Committee to Protect Journalists to allow journalists to avoid a government’s prying eyes.

Snowden’s leaks will cause much more damage before this is over. All countries engage in surveillance, but increasingly in the West the public is saying there must be limits. Though citizens may live in democracies, they can sense that the infrastructure of surveillance going up around them is no different than what would be present in a totalitarian system. This disconnect is no longer reconcilable, or tolerable.

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