Schneier on the NSA, Google, Facebook Connection But What About Phones?

Bruce Schneier argues that we should not be fooled by Google, Facebook, and other companies that decry the recent NSA data grabs, because the nature of the Internet is surveillance; but what about phone companies? The press has jumped on the Obama administration’s forthcoming plan that

would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.

The details are to come, but Schneier’s point about the structure of the system applies to phone companies too, “The biggest Internet companies don’t offer real security because the U.S. government won’t permit it.”

There are few things to parse here. OK there are many things to parse, but a blog post has limits. First, Schneier’s point about Internet companies is different than his one about the government. His point is that yes, many companies have stepped up security to prevent some government spying, but because Gooogle, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and almost any online company needs access to user data to run their businesses and make money, they all have built “massive security vulnerability” “into [their] services by design.” When a company does that, “by extension, the U.S. government, still has access to your communications.” Second, as Schneier points out, even if a company tried to plug the holes, the government won’t let that happen. Microsoft’s Skype service has built in holes. The government has demanded encryption keys. And so it goes. And so we have a line on the phone problems.

The proposed changes may solve little, because so far the government has been able to use procedure and sheer spying outside procedure to grab data. The key will be what procedures are required and what penalties follow for failing to follow procedure. That said, as I argued regarding data security in January 2013, fixing data security (and by extension phone problems) will require several changes:

A key hurdle is identifying when any government may demand data. Transparent policies and possibly treaties could help better identify and govern under what circumstances a country may demand data from another. Countries might work with local industry to create data security and data breach laws with real teeth as a way to signal that poor data security has consequences. Countries should also provide more room for companies to challenge requests and reveal them so the global market has a better sense of what is being sought, which countries respect data protection laws, and which do not. Such changes would allow companies to compete based not only on their security systems but their willingness to defend customer interests. In return companies and computer scientists will likely have to design systems with an eye toward the ability to respond to government requests when those requests are proper. Such solutions may involve ways to tag data as coming from a citizen of a particular country. Here, issues of privacy and freedom arise, because the more one can tag and trace data, the more one can use it for surveillance. This possibility shows why increased transparency is needed, for at the very least it would allow citizens to object to pacts between governments and companies that tread on individual rights.

And here is the crux of Schneier’s ire: companies that are saying your data is safe, are trying to protect their business, but as he sees it:

A more accurate statement might be, “Your data is safe from governments, except for the ways we don’t know about and the ways we cannot tell you about. And, of course, we still have complete access to it all, and can sell it at will to whomever we want.” That’s a lousy marketing pitch, but as long as the NSA is allowed to operate using secret court orders based on secret interpretations of secret law, it’ll never be any different.

In that sense he thinks companies should lean on the government and openly state security is not available for now. Although he knows no company can say that, the idea that we should all acknowledge the problem and go after the government to change the game is correct.

The point is correct for Internet companies and for phone companies. We should not over-focus on phones and forget the other ways we can be watched.

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