Tech companies working with the NSA prove they can’t be trusted

Whatever the details might be, it seems clear that dozens of technology companies — and perhaps even more — have co-operated with the NSA on its surveillance program. And they could pay a high price for doing so.

As the fallout continues to rain down from recent reports about the NSA snooping on millions of phone calls and terabytes of web traffic, the spin campaign from both the government and the technology companies allegedly involved in the program has reached a fever pitch. First there were strenuous denials from the likes of Google, Yahoo and Facebook, followed by broad hints that they only co-operated because they were trying to make things easier on their users — and then leaked reports that some were essentially forced at gunpoint to do the NSA’s bidding.

Whatever the case may be, agreeing to turn over data to the government might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the potential downside risks of that particular slippery slope are fairly overwhelming.

The popular response to the NSA revelations may lie somewhere between mild disinterest and outright apathy, according to surveys like the one done by the Pew Center — in part because we seem to have gotten used to the idea that tech companies are monitoring our every move. But being seen as co-operating with the spy agency is still a fairly huge risk for cloud-based services. Not only that, but co-operating in even a small way makes those companies look like easy targets for further government pressure…

At this point, the actual truth of what is involved in the NSA’s so-called PRISM program remains a rapidly shifting target. The documents first published by the Guardian and the Washington Post a week ago seemed pretty cut and dried in their description of a system that allowed the spy agency “direct access” to the servers of Google, Yahoo, Facebook and about half a dozen other companies — something the Post originally said was provided voluntarily and gave the NSA broad access to information about user behavior.

Almost immediately, however, the details started to blur: not only did those companies deny providing “direct access” to their servers, but some sources said the data was only provided under duress, because of secret court orders related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act…

Denials and duress don’t address the essential question of how much cooperation ended up happening?

That said, however, there seems to be little doubt that many companies co-operated with the NSA, and may have set up “lockbox” or “clean room”-style facilities for providing data — and there are even suggestions that this group could go far beyond just Google and Yahoo and Facebook, and could include hundreds of other technology providers that have co-operated to some extent with the spy agency and given the NSA details about their equipment and/or products that could help its surveillance program.

These companies may have convinced themselves that co-operation was inevitable, or that they needed to do something to help the government catch terrorists, or that by automating the legally legitimate FISA process they could save themselves a lot of trouble and expense, or some combination of all the above. But in reality, they have not only shown themselves to be weak — which will encourage the NSA to pressure them even further because they know they can win — but also fundamentally untrustworthy, and that could cause them a lot more problems with users than they ever contemplated.

If you take it back all the way to the originators of this so-called Patriot Act, only the librarians of America had the courage to face up to the machinery of government and rubber stamp courts. Everyone else pretty much rolled over and played dead. The only change to the tactics of this assault on our constitutional freedoms came through the quasi-liberal White House asking Congress to make all the crimes associated with government snooping legal. And Congress behaved just as you would expect. They rolled over and played dead.

We have four kinds of history here. The first two are Congressional Republicans and Democrats. The local flavors aren’t much different. They always cooperate with bureaucratic “security” – have done so for over a half-century. Progressives, libertarians, traditional American conservatives [the few left] opposed this crap when it came from Bush and oppose it under Obama. Neo-Cons, patent leather conservatives of the Fox ilk, obedient religious fundamentalists kissed Bush’s butt when he followed these policies – and only oppose them, now, because Obama is the president.

So much for tripartite government, checks and balances. I like a lot of what Barack Obama has accomplished – even more so the programs attempted and rejected by a reactionary Congress. But, when he stands before TV cameras and rolls out the official blather about checks and balances – with congressional politicians, a FISA court, lacking the courage to challenge anything more than punctuation – he is a liar and hypocrite.

As for our tech entrepreneurs, go ahead and Google “QUISLING”.

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