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Big Brother’s eyes are everywhere

Birds of a feather?

Birds of a feather?

I summon a certain phrase whenever the world’s Internet-traveling tech companies assert their moral authority to protect their millions upon millions of customers from Big Government’s snoops and sneaks: something about foxes guarding henhouses.

In ads in major newspapers across the U.S., and on dozens of websites, Google, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo (call them the eight horsemen of the digital apocalypse) have announced a new consortium, the purpose of which is to pressure governments everywhere to stop the growing practice of warrantless and unaccountable spying.

That’s a little like asking a gossip to keep a secret. Nevertheless, here’s what they say: “We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”

What’s more, and for their part, “We are focused on keeping users’ data secure –deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope. We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”

All of which raises but one question: Do these 100th-of-a-one-percenters, these brilliant geeks who, in some cases, kissed off their Ivy League educations to make billions of bucks in the open market, seriously think we buy their pieties about personal privacy? This is all about business, pure and simple.

That’s what Google CEO Larry Page means when he observes that “the security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information. This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform, and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.”

In fact, the productive relationship between government R&D and the technology sector, has produced most, if not all, of the communications innovations of the past 75 years. That includes everything from the application software that makes your smart phone chatter on command to the Internet, itself. Separating these partners in this continuum of invention would be akin to extracting chlorine from a swimming pool.

What’s at stake is the integrity of Big Data – a jewell so profoundly valuable in the tech world that anything that might cause a public (i.e. consumer) rebellion against its collection and deployment in the service of capitalist enterprise must be quelled. Simply put: When Big Brother overreaches, he hurts the bottom line.

Technology writer, Katherine Arline had this to say in a piece for mobile.pro last month: “Telecommunications equipment maker Cisco Systems announced an anticipated 8 to 10 per cent drop in revenue for the current quarter, sending shares tumbling 13 per cent . . .Cisco said concerns about network security in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures fueled the decline.”

Specifically, Frank Calderone, the company’s CFO said he had seen “a significant increase in the ‘level of uncertainty or concern’ among international consumers. ‘I have never seen that fast a move in emerging markets,’ Calderone said. Cisco customers are concerned that the NSA has backdoors into network hardware from U.S. makers, and analysts think  that companies including IBM and Microsoft are also at risk. Jim Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told Reuters that more U.S. companies are likely to be affected. ‘All the big U.S. IT companies are concerned,’ Lewis said. ‘But so far Cisco is bearing the brunt.’”

It may be true that the allegations against the National Security Agency – that it routinely and illegally snoops on average folks by extracting data from unwilling tech companies who must, nevertheless, comply with its edicts – are exaggerated.

But in an industry where reputations are everything and brand loyalty is paramount, perceptions are even more important than reality. Internet-traveling tech companies playing the role of public defender No. 1 is great spin.

Indeed, it might even work.

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