Privacy, trust and social networks
The work of the National Security Agency (NSA), a US intelligence agency responsible for analysing data intelligence from overseas went on unreported until last week. Its work attracted the attention of the mainstream media when Edward Snowden a former security contractor leaked information about an alleged programme called PRISM to The Guardian.
According to Snowden PRISM gathers text, photos and video content from a number of US Internet services and social networks including AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and YouTube, amongst others.
Eye spy (but not on US citizens)
Surveillance of US citizens is illegal under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. It is only allowed where there are grounds for suspicion and then it must be legally sanctioned by the courts.
The US administration was quick to reassure American citizens that they had nothing to fear because the work of the NSA only targets foreigners. It’s a sensitive topic that pits civil liberties and the freedom of the individual against the US government’s desire to protect the US from terrorist attacks.
In a US Senate hearing following The Guardian leak, NSA boss Keith Alexander defended the practice of Internet surveillance, claiming that it had ‘smashed dozens of terrorist plots’. Inevitably information about the scale of PRISM or outcomes from the programme is hard to come by because it relates to national security.
According to information leaked by Snowdon the NSA uses a tool called Boundless Informant to track how much intelligence data is gathered worldwide by the NSA. Charts show that the agency collected almost three billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over 39 days through to March 2013.
Data privacy and security is critical to the relationship between technology companies and consumers who are expected to share personal information in exchange for using services for free.
You’re the product
The reality of social networks is that if a service is free you’re the product. Consumers continue to use services providing that the value they gain outweighs privacy concerns. If this delicate relationship is breached, consumers will be quick to remove their profiles and accounts and leave social networks and web services.
Unsurprisingly the organisations affected have all been quick to issue denials, protesting that they would never share data with a third-party as a matter of course. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Larry Page both said that they have never given any government direct access to their servers.
The implication is that the NSA monitors equipment connected to the Internet, replicating and storing information for analysis.
Technology companies will disclose data when legally required to do so, for example in the case of a criminal investigation or at the request of a court. Requests are reviewed by legal teams and considered on an individual account-by-account basis.
A delicate balance of trust
In a bid to protect their reputation and maintain consumer trust Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft have all asked the US government for permission to publicly disclose instances when they are legally requested to share user data.
They each realise that consumer trust is critical to ensuring that consumers continue to use their services.