Tech Companies Face the Bottom Line in the NSA Surveillance Scandal: They Helped Make it Happen

Tech Companies Face the Bottom Line in the NSA Surveillance Scandal: 

They Helped Make it Happen

In March, leaders in the technology industry met with President Obama for the second time to express outrage over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of their users’ data.  The March meeting was follow up to the tech industry’s launch of the Global Governance Surveillance Reform campaign, a public call from the leaders of Apple, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others to reform the laws governing metadata collection programs.

Outcry from the tech industry, which stands to lose an estimated  $35 billion by 2016 due to the surveillance scandal, has been a driving force behind presidential and congressional action to limit the NSA’s access to telephone, email and internet data.  Many of the tech companies that have publicly condemned the NSA, however, have longstanding relationships with the intelligence agency as contractors.  They, also, have privacy policies that have made metadata collection and analysis possible.

Spanking the NSA

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian immortalized Edward Snowden in June 2013 by releasing the first in a series of articles based on leaked documents Snowden collected while employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, the security and intelligence consultancy firm with several multi-billion dollar contracts with the U.S. government.  Revelations that NSA surveillance activity included U.S. citizens and the heads of state of allied nations shocked the nation.  The program at the center of the storm, bulk telephony metadata collection, has existed since 2001 under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Obama administration has scrambled to respond to public outcry over the scandal.  In August 2013, Obama formed the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, which released 46 recommendations to balance intelligence collection with civil liberties in its December report Liberty and Security in a Changing World.  The tech industry was heavily involved with the President’s Review Group and their influence can be seen in many of the report’s recommendations, which positions the tech industry to benefit from future surveillance programs.

  • Recommendation 5 calls for private providers or a 3rd party, such as a tech company, to hold metadata records, not the NSA.
  • Recommendation 9 enables tech companies to release transparency reports to its consumers about the number of data requests from the government.
  • Recommendation 20 calls for the development of new software that would enable the NSA to better target information, which would reduce the need for bulk metadata.

On March 27, 2014 the Obama administration announced its proposal to replace Section 215 of the Patriot Act with a new program that would leave metadata in the hands of the companies where it originated.  Data from tech companies could only be obtained through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order and companies receiving the order would be required to provide technical assistance to ensure the data was received in a usable format.  The Obama surveillance program proposal is awaiting the passage of legislation, such as the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act of 2014 introduced to Congress on March 25, 2014 by House Intelligence Committee Chief Mike Rogers (R-MI), to enforce it.

The Tech Industry Knows What You Did Last Summer

The tech industry stands to profit from the surveillance reform it helped to instigate; government contracts for the private sector would be necessary to institute changes to NSA surveillance programs.  However, many of the tech companies that launched the Global Governance Surveillance Reform campaign and met repeatedly with Obama and administration officials to express concern over metadata collection have had longstanding relationships with the NSA.  Sprint, Microsoft and T Mobile, active in lobbying for surveillance reform, are all registered with the NSA as potential contractors.

The Acquisition Resource Center (ARC) of the NSA is a necessary step in obtaining contract work with the intelligence agency.  In 2011, Sprint, Microsoft and T Mobile were all registered members of NSA’s ARC.

The 2009 NSA Inspector General Report, leaked to the Guardian by Snowden, revealed NSA’s reliance on telecommunication companies to carry out their metadata collection program.  The collection partnership between the NSA and telecommunication giants AT&T and Verizon was crucial to the bulk metadata collection program; an end to the cooperation of telecommunications companies would have devastated the NSA’s surveillance activity.

The NSA has come to rely on telecommunication and tech companies to carry out their surveillance activity due to the incredible amount of information the tech industry collects and stores on its users.  Google’s privacy policies read more like a disclaimer about the many ways in which the private information of its consumers will be used for public purposes.  Google is clear that it collects information on its user’s location, call logs and web searches, which it uses for targeting advertisements and tailored web searches.  Google is also clear in its use of pattern recognition that the company collects biometric data on its users, such as facial features, to help its users tag photos and video footage.

Who’s Watching You?

The NSA surveillance scandal has brought privacy issues to the forefront of public consciousness.  Backlash from revelations that telephone, e-mail and Internet metadata was collected on U.S. citizens is pushing through government reforms that are shifting an increasing amount of responsibilities to the tech industry.  The tech industry, however, collects more information about its users than government agencies have ever had the ability to access.  Reigning in the NSA may do little to turn the tide on metadata collection and analysis.  Rather, it has the potential to push metadata collection, analysis and dissemination to the private sector, which is governed by, above all else, the quest for profits.

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