Since there is nothing more self-righteous than an addict who just got out of rehab, it was not surprising that Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith at a Silicon Valley panel discussion on NSA surveillance would say, “You own your data. And the government needs to start respecting that.”
Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple have made big bucks selling other people’s Internet data to marketers and the federal government. But now that customers are rebelling, Microsoft and others are trying to shift all the blame onto the U.S. government.
The Palo Alto, CA panel was organized by Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and member for the last decade on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to address the massive blowback Silicon Valley has suffered from revelations by Edward Snowden of what appeared to be a lucrative partnership by Silicon Valley to help facilitate NSA surveillance programs. Snowden’s document dump outlined the massive scale of three years of co-operation between virtually all the Silicon Valley tech companies and U.S. intelligence agencies.
The panel included Silicon Valley heavyweights John Lilly, a partner with Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners, and Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman. The other big tech firms were represented by corporate counsels–Colin Stretch of Facebook, Ramsey Homsany of Dropbox, and Brad Smith from Microsoft.
Wyden opened the discussion by remarking that he never heard a U.S. official express any concerns regarding government’s mass surveillance programs before Edward Snowden made his revelations. “When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington gets up at arms,” but “noone in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the US economy.”
Wired Magazine reported that “The room erupted in applause” after the comment.
Microsoft has been at the epicenter of the NSA privacy outrage since Snowden outted the firm by handing top-secret documents to the British Guardian newspaper revealing Microsoft collaborated closely with U.S. intelligence services to circumvent the company’s security encryption algorithms so that users’ Internet communications and voice-over-IP Skype calls could be seamlessly hacked with Prism and other “tools.” Microsoft staff called helping collect material for the FBI and CIA a “team sport!”
The Snowden files also trace that when the NSA did not “understand” technical issues associated with a feature from a new version of “Outlook.com” that allowed users to create email aliases, Microsoft worked directly with the FBI’s Data Intercept Unit in 2013 to help the NSA’s Prism hacking tool access the data on “SkyDrive,” Microsoft’s cloud storage service, with more than 250 million users worldwide, according to the Guardian.
At the scandal peak, Microsoft stated: “We have clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues. First, we take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes,” but their reputation was damaged.
The Wyden panelists all agree the surveillance scandal has caused a loss of trust by Americans in the U.S. tech industry, and significant economic, social, and educational impacts will occur if foreign countries limit distribution of data to their own nations. Twenty countries are already proposing such laws as retaliation against U.S. spying.
Eric Schmidt of Google said that he believes that if the laws pass, “The simplest outcome is we’re going to end up breaking the internet.” Foreign governments will just say, “We want our own internet… and we don’t want other people in it.”
Schmidt whined on about how this would be a tragedy for the loss of shared knowledge, science, and new discoveries. He expressed concern that the expense of running data centers in every country would be a burden for some firms to handle. “We’re screwing around with those kinds of concepts without understanding that that is a national industry,” Schmidt added.
Facebook’s Colin Stretch Data warned localization of data would allow foreign regimes that “don’t respect the rule of law or even have a rule of law” the ability to hack data.
Dropbox’s Homsany said that the U.S. government should accept responsibility for the scandal “to show the world that we are a country that respects these values.”
Senator Wyden addressed Apple’s pro-active move to make encryption a default on the iPhone 6 that would make it difficult for the U.S. government intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies “to do their job.” Wyden said Congress must ensure that liberty and security are not mutually exclusive “so that companies aren’t forced to duke it out with the government in the technology lab.”
Schmidt blew off Wyden’s concerns when he responded that law enforcement has “many, many ways to get that information they need without having to do this.” [hacking]
Microsoft’s Smith said only more robust technology or stronger laws can protect privacy, “And in the absence of better laws, we’re all being asked to invest in stronger technology.” From a lawyer’s standpoint, he said the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is almost 30 years old, and it is long overdue for a thorough update. He gave the audience a good laugh as the discussion ended by adding, “If this law were a technology product, it would be in a museum.”
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