Tech Execs Express Extreme Concern That NSA Surveillance Could Lead To 'Breaking' The Internet

from the moral,-economic-and-patriotic dept

As mentioned, on Wednesday I attended a tech exec panel held at Palo Alto High School (in the high school gym, which was a weird sort of setting for such a high powered gathering of folks -- complete with gym echoes, and school bells buzzing, at one point leading a bunch of students to stream out to lunch just as Google's Eric Schmidt started talking). You can see the video of the event here where the sound is actually much, much clearer than in the gym itself, where the buzzing old lights made it nearly impossible to hear half of the panelists).
Nothing necessarily earth-shattering was said by anyone, but it did involve a series of high powered tech execs absolutely slamming the NSA and the intelligence community, and warning of the vast repercussions from that activity, up to and including potentially splintering or "breaking" the internet by causing people to so distrust the existing internet, that they set up separate networks on their own.

The execs repeated the same basic points over and over again. They had been absolutely willing to work with law enforcement when and where appropriate based on actual court orders and review -- but that the government itself completely poisoned the well with its activities, including hacking into the transmission lines between overseas datacenters. Thus, as Eric Schmidt noted, if the NSA and other law enforcement folks are "upset" about Google and others suddenly ramping up their use of encryption and being less willing to cooperate with the government, they only have themselves to blame for completely obliterating any sense of trust.

Microsoft's Brad Smith, towards the end, made quite an impassioned plea -- it sounded more like a politician's stump speech -- about the need for rebuilding trust in the internet. It's at about an hour and 3 minutes into the video. He points out that while people had expected Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act, the rise of ISIS and other claimed threats has some people scared, but, he notes:
We need to look the world's dangers in the face. And we need to resolve that we will not allow the dangers of the world to freeze this country in its tracks. We need to recognize that antiquated laws will not keep the public safe. We need to recognize that laws that the rest of the world does not respect will ultimately undermine the fundamental ability of our own legal processes, law enforcement agencies and even the intelligence community itself. At the end of the day, we need to recognize... the one asset that the US has which is even stronger than our military might is our moral authority. And this decline in trust, has not only effected people's trust in American technology products. It has effected people's willingness to trust the leadership of the United States. If we are going to win the war on terror. If we are going to keep the public safe. If we are going to improve American competitiveness, we need Congress to stay on the path it's set. We need Congress to finish in December the job the President put before Congress in January.
It was a good talk, and it basically was a chance for all these tech execs to express similar concerns and to do so loudly. It's perfectly reasonable to suggest that the tech industry was complacent on these issues in the past, that they were too trusting (often way too trusting) of the government, that they should have started from a position of distrust and should have encrypted everything possible from the get go. Frankly, those are very legitimate criticisms. But, it's pretty clear that these tech companies are now pissed off at the government and the fact that it undermined everything, including their own businesses around the globe -- and they're determined to win back the trust of the public, whether or not the government is willing to cooperate. I find that encouraging, though I'd still like to see pretty much all of the companies do even more on the encryption front.

As I said, there wasn't anything earth shattering, but it's clear that these companies have all seen the impact from the government's overbroad surveillance efforts, and they're not just concerned about it from their direct bottom line, but what it means for the overall internet. Multiple execs talked about not just moral authority, as Smith mentioned, but the moral imperative to use the internet to create greater connectivity and raise the ability of people around the globe -- and how much more difficult the NSA had made things.

I know that some cynical folks will claim this is all for show. But there is a real concern that comes across here about just how devastating the NSA's actions have been (and continue to be). Schmidt was absolutely right that if law enforcement and the intelligence community is upset about it, they only have themselves to blame.
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Filed Under: brad smith, economy, eric schmidt, nsa, ron wyden, surveillance, trust
Companies: google, microsoft

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Oct 2014 @ 9:58am

    ...up to and including potentially splintering or "breaking" the internet by causing people to so distrust the existing internet, that they set up separate networks on their own.

    I'm not sure about that. A network, by definition is vulnerable. Second, a reduction in scope may make it economically unfeasible, Better encryption seems like the way forward. I don't see 99% + of internet users willing to utilize a limited network out of privacy concerns at the expense of utility.

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