“Randomly watching and surveilling what’s going over the internet and invading the privacy of American citizens is not OK. Encryption is the solution.” answered Google Chairman Eric Schmidt when asked his thoughts on the state of cyber security during a conference yesterday.
While Schmidt has an extremely valid point – wanton surveillance of the citizens of our country puts us back in the middle ages – his words ring hollow when compared to Google’s role as a huge collector and commercial beneficiary of people’s data.
“When the Snowden revelations came out, we were very upset,” Schmidt answered. “It was not in collaboration with us. NSA stands for ‘Never Say Anything,’ and they didn’t say anything to us. We embarked on a programme to fully encrypt and secure the information that customers entrust with us. That means encryption at rest and encryption in transit. We know that it worked because now all the people who were snooping are complaining.”
Yet this explanation is far too convenient and ignores the dirty little secret of Silicon Valley: it’s all about making money. You and your data are the product and nobody cares what happens to you so long as it doesn’t hurt profits.
Take Snapchat, the social media darling that “destroys” pictures after a fixed amount of time. Yet it doesn’t actually destroy anything – the pictures remain on your phone and on the company’s servers in case that data becomes useful at some point.
The downside is that any of our numerous police or secret police can request any and all of your data without so much as a warrant. A polite letter on official looking letterhead is usually enough to do the trick.
Then take Mr Schmidt’s Gmail product. The premise there is to store every single email you’ve ever written or drafted, forever.
The premise is so scary that Schmidt himself deletes, twice, every single email he receives. He understands the implications of having every email you’ve ever sent looming over your head. Imagine how damning some of them could be if, say, you were facing an anti-trust investigation by the European Commission? Hillary Clinton too knows the danger of this.
If big tech companies actually cared they would engineer clever solutions to make sure the information the CIA / NSA and everyone else so critically want wasn’t collected and stored in the first place. But this type of truly sophisticated engineering is difficult and costs money. Companies like Google, Facebook and Snapchat would rather make gobs of quick cash than create products that truly advance society and prevent abuse by authorities.
The lesson here is that if you log it and store it the NSA or other secret police will come calling. To truly prevent this kind of spying the data needs to not be collected in the first place or stored in such a way it is impossible to use for spying. That is Silicon Valley’s real challenge and it will be interesting to see who steps up to the plate.