SAN FRANCISCO – Google has spent months and millions of dollars encrypting email, search queries and other information flowing among its data centers worldwide. Facebook’s chief executive said at a conference this fall that the government “blew it.” And although it has not been announced publicly, Twitter plans to set up new types of encryption to protect messages from snoops.
It is all reaction to reports of how far the government has gone in spying on Internet users, sneaking around tech companies to tap into their systems without their knowledge or cooperation.
What began as a public relations predicament for America’s technology companies has evolved into a moral and business crisis that threatens the foundation of their businesses, which rests on consumers and companies trusting them with their digital lives.
So they are pushing back in various ways – from cosmetic tactics such as publishing the numbers of government requests they receive to political ones, including tense conversations with officials behind closed doors. And companies are building technical fortresses intended to make the private information in which they trade inaccessible to the government and other suspected spies.
Yet even as they take measures against government collection of personal information, their business models rely on collecting that same data, largely to be able to sell personalized ads. So no matter the steps they take, as long as they remain advertising companies, they will be gathering a trove of information for law enforcement and spies.
When reports of surveillance by the National Security Agency surfaced in June, the companies were frustrated at the exposure of their cooperation with the government in complying with lawful requests for the data of foreign users, and they scrambled to explain to customers that they had no choice but to obey the requests.
But as details of the scope of spying emerge, frustration has turned to outrage, and cooperation has turned to war.
The industry has learned that it knew of only a fraction of the spying, and it is grappling with the risks of being viewed as an enabler of surveillance of foreigners and U.S. citizens.
Lawmakers in Brazil, for instance, are considering legislation requiring Google to store the data of local users in the country. European lawmakers last week proposed a measure to require U.S. Internet companies to receive permission from European officials before complying with lawful government requests for data.
“The companies, some more than others, are taking steps to make sure that surveillance without their consent is difficult,” said Christopher Soghoian, a senior analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But what they can’t do is design services that truly keep the government out because of their ad-supported business model, and they’re not willing to give up that business model.”