Editorial: Our Men in Silicon Valley
Both the U.S. government and the Big Internet are responsible for the new scandal.
Several years ago, when I was in the US, I studied with an old professor. I don’t remember much of what he taught or even what he taught, but one detail still fascinates me. On his laptop, a piece of blue tape proudly covered the webcam. The old man, an émigré from some half-forgotten Soviet republic, thought the government could still be spying on him. I dismissed this as ravings of a paranoiac. If the government wishes to see my gormless face surfing the web or detritus behind me that I call my room, it is their problem, I concluded then.
Many events since – especially the latest series of revelations as chronicled in the Guardian – have made me realized how naïve I am. I have always viewed governments everywhere as more incompetent than malevolent, but their skillful electronic surveillance has shattered both of those illusions.
It has been revealed that US government’s use telephone and internet companies to spy domestically and internationally is large in scale and depth. Companies involved ranged from Verizon to Microsoft. And the data they handed to the government include emails, login activities, video conferences, file transfers, and stored data. And it appeared not many people raised civil liberty concerns at any government or corporate level.
My time in the Silicon Valley had taught me that privacy to an Internet exec is like chastity to a prostitute. It is simply bad for business model. But many will agree that there exists a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. Last month in Paris, I had a dinner with two up-and-coming IT engineers. They dismissed my privacy concerns with nonchalant “just don’t put anything you don’t want to be shared online”. That is a petulant comment I often heard in the Valley, manned by socially-awkward men-children.
Twitter, blogs, youTube, or even Facebook functions as publishing platforms. I understand I cannot really control them. Even on emails, when I email someone, my mails/attachments are beyond your control, and can reasonably expect the counterparty to spread them. But two surveillance measures stood out: login activities and stored data. For instance, Apple, via “Find My Phone”, already possess an easy tracking system; I have activated it to protect my assets from theft not for it to report my every moments to its masters in Cupertino and beyond.
Back in non-virtual world, I expect UPS, DHL, or FedEx not to open my packages. I also expect the government to come with warrants if they want to look inside my storage lockers. Internet services should not be beholden to different standards. Not by the government. Nor by the private companies.
Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells @aalholmes
7th June 2013