Silicon Valley gives us the finger

By Yasha Levine

Google and other Silicon Valley megacorps want us to trust them with our most sensitive and personal private information. They want us to believe that they only have our best interests at heart, and would never do anything to harm us. And of course they go on and on about the importance of transparency.

So of course it’s only natural that these same companies would, en masse, refuse to participate in the new Frontline documentary series on the NSA and Internet surveillance: "The United States of Secrets."

I just finished watching a press screener of the second installment of the documentary. It's a great program that delves deep into Edward Snowden's NSA leaks and Silicon Valley's role in facilitating and enhancing the agency's Internet surveillance operations. I don't want to give any spoilers before it airs tomorrow, except to say I'm glad Frontline had the guts to investigate the private sector side of the NSA surveillance story, not just the bad stuff the government does.

Really the only complaint I have about the program is that it repeats the bogus claim that Edward Snowden was forced to stay in Russia only because the United States revoked his passport. We now know that this isn't true. A variety of Western and Russian sources (and I say this as someone who reads Russian) indicate that Snowden has not been entirely honest about his Hong Kong escape story. The truth is that he had initially wanted to seek refuge in Iceland, but changed his mind and headed to Moscow instead because he thought it was the only place that had the power to rebuff America's extradition requests and guarantee his safety.

Wikileaks confirmed this in recent statement:

Germany blocks #Snowden - why we advised #Snowden to take Russia. Not safe elsewhere:… donate:
But, yes, aside from that minor point, the documentary was a well-researched investigation into many of the issues we've been covering in our Surveillance Valley series here on Pando.

My experience in reporting that series has gotten me used to being stonewalled by companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and the rest. When asked about their use of user data and willingness to share it with authorities, the major Internet corps clam up quicker than you can say "commitment to transparency."

But still, surely they wouldn't have the balls to stonewall Frontline. Frontline!

I had naively expected the documentary to be packed with interviews with reps from Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Microsoft, Yahoo and other Silicon Valley megacorps — all of them eagerly lining up to vent their anger and outrage at the underhanded big brother overreach of the NSA.

They did no such thing.

As the narrator informs viewers part way into the program, "All of the major Internet companies we called in the course of making this program refused to participate."

Not a single major Internet company would comment, discuss, complain or answer any questions about their role (witting or unwitting) in NSA’s Internet surveillance ops. In short: when contacted by PBS, the corporations we trust with our most private data and communications acted like evil tobacco or oil companies, or shady crooks who had something to hide.

The reason is simple: the United State of Secrets documentary doesn't cast Silicon Valley as an innocent victim of a bullying, overreaching government. And it goes far beyond the usual narrow critique of government surveillance. It delves deep into the implications of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks but also looks at the vast for-profit surveillance machinery that drives the lucrative business operations of Silicon Valley companies. It shows that these private dragnets differ little with the NSA's spy technology, and it looks at how Silicon Valley's operations — wittingly and unwittingly — empowered and enhance the capabilities of the US Surveillance State.

As UC Berkeley prof Chris Hoofnagle told Frontline:

"The types of activities that [Silicon Valley companies] engage in is very similar to surveillance. It is surveillance — just for advertising rather than law enforcement. The private sector is where the whole game is. ... The moment that you allow people to look at the content of your communication for some advertising purposes is the moment that the government is gonna come along and say, 'If you're gonna let them listen in for advertising, why don't you let us listen in for antiterrorism or for serious crimes?' It becomes very difficult for courts to say that private sector can listen in, but government can't."
This kind of line of inquiry apparently cut much too close to the truth for the titans of Silicon Valley.

What made their stonewalling all the more shocking was that Frontline did successfully arrange to interview the former head of the NSA and a long list of top Bush and Obama administration officials. Many of those officials knew they would have to sit through tough interviews and answer unpleasant questions, and they must have known that they wouldn’t necessarily come out of looking so good. But they appeared anyway, presumably realizing that to do otherwise would be to look even guiltier.

Silicon Valley megacorps clearly felt they were above this kind of public accountability. Perhaps execs at Google et al worry that even the smallest disclosure of their intel-gathering operations would be too revealing, triggering an initial public awareness that would quickly and inevitably lead users to realize just how rapacious and intrusive they really are.

Google is a prime example of this paranoia. Even as far back as 2003, when Google was still just a search company, Larry Page resisted disclosing even a tiny bit of Google’s use and retention of search data.

In his book “I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59” Douglas Edwards describes Page’s hyper-awareness of just how dangerous the privacy issue could be for the company:

“To Larry the risks were too high. Once we squeezed the toothpaste out of the tube, we would not be able to put it back. And he would never do anything that might cost us access to what Wayne Rosing called our "beautiful data."
Page was adamant about keeping Google’s privacy policy/terms of service as vague and brief as possible. He worried about disclosure so much that he wanted to get rid of the scrolling ticker screen in Google’s Mountain View lobby that showed random Google searches from around the world in real time. He was also against Google’s Zeitgeist — an annual video round up the most popular search terms of the year.

Page was paranoid and worried that these things would provide enough clues for people to realize just how invasive that Google search box really was, and how much sensitive and personally identifiable it collected. And the thing to understand that Page was freaking out about this before the company had rolled even more invasive products like Gmail.

Silicon Valley knows that people don't like and don't want to be tracked on the Internet, and that's why they have to avoid having to publicly deal or confront any real substantive criticism of its data collection practices.

Silicon Valley megacorps have no interest in transparency. They don’t want to talk to reporters who would ask them real question about their for-profit surveillance business operations. Why would they risk it when they can fall back a trusted crisis PR technique: shut the doors, don’t pick up the phone, lie low for a while and wait for the storm to pass.

United States of Secrets airs on PBS.

Originally published on on May 19, 2014.

Read more: article

< Back