EDITOR'S BLOG: Google, Facebook et al turn on the spies

Tech firms need to grow out of skate-boarding Californian adolescence and accept that they have a huge responsibility towards privacy.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Dec 2013

It would appear that even the American tech world has had it with spies. Edward Snowden’s revelations have finally stung them into action. Today Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL have published an open letter protesting about the activities of their National Security Agency to Barack Obama and Congress. 

"The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our constitution," urges the letter, in a decidedly new tack for the IT giants. "This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for change."

The companies are claiming that Snowden’s exposures have undermined public faith in the internet and blame the intelligence agencies for the resulting threat to their business interests. "People won’t use technology they don’t trust," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

Marissa Mayer of Yahoo has also kicked in with her embrace of freedom, saying: "Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world."

Would you mind if I take this with a small pinch of salt? There are two things here: firstly, the principles of freedom from surveillance and interference from the state without proper approval from the judiciary; and secondly the naked commercial self-interest of these organisations. The morals and the money.

We know that many of them - when faced, for example, with protests about continuing to help serve up child pornography  – have always resorted to the freedom of expression , "don’t hinder the precious liberty of the web" argument to defend their business models and profit.

This was pretty stinky.

These companies are not Lincoln-like, fine lovers of ethics.  Mark Zuckerberg may be many things but a subtle, inquiring ethical mind he isn’t. Their principles – as we’ve seen when it comes to coughing up corporation tax in counties where they operate and make vast profits - are pretty limited despite the fact that as Jeff Jarvis says in this good piece they are the nuclear scientists of our age. They need to grow out of skate-boarding Californian adolescence and accept that they have a huge responsibility and often fail to realise or act on this. 

What they see as a potential worry is that individuals and, indeed, corporations are less likely to use their services if they think they are not safe and secure from those who would snoop on the information.

Have you ever read the small print when you park stuff on iCloud? I haven’t. No I just open the box of my new ipad Air and get on with allowing Apple and Google to run my life and collect all my data. Margaret Hodge may have given up Amazon in protest about their tax behaviour but millions won’t. 

Seductive convenience trumps everything. And we have grown so used to having things so very convenient. How I laugh at the days when, following a holiday, I’d trip down the road to Snappy Snaps with my 35 mm film cartridge and then return two days later to collect the on paper results. Now any low grade information sifter at GCHQ can have a peep at my pics if he wishes and I’ll be none the wiser.   

There’s a further hitch. Even if the US government – and by association HMG because in matters of intelligence we do what we’re told by the Americans – capitulates and agrees to change the rules of the game this will not be enough. America is a deeply paranoid nation when it comes to the world outside.

And it will always cite national security as a reason to prevent scrutiny of what is going on at ground level. Spies are very hard to control because they place the cloak over their dagger. It’s only when, once in a blue moon you get a misfit like Edward Snowden who comes along and blows the lid off some very rum practices.

And then, like the traitor Kim Philby, he gets to spend a happy retirement living in the grim reality of the thug-like state of modern Russia.

Others have noted the breath-taking hypocrisy of this outburst. The use of customer’s data by these outfits is already a highly controversial business.

We’ve discussed this recently here in MT. One might sum up Mayer and Zuckerberg’s  misgivings up as a warning to Obama: " Don’t spy on our customers. That’s our job."

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