The U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) has one job, and that's keeping America secure — and by all accounts they're doing it well, even if their methods are questionable.
However, by focusing on that one job they've ignored a few big picture items, such as the impact they're currently having on the reputation of American high tech companies.
The NSA created an unprecedented electronic surveillance program in the mid-2000s in response to the 9/11 terror attacks, although we're only learning the scope and reach of that program today thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden.
It has reassured the public that it follows the letter of the law and doesn't sweep up any American citizens in the course of its very important surveillance work. A lot of people doubt it, but are giving the NSA the benefit of the doubt.
But what about the rest of the world? American privacy laws don't apply to citizens of Canada or China or the U.K., and given that most of the world's servers and Internet traffic passes through the U.S. at some point, it's pretty much open season. No laws exist to protect our data or private conversations.
Our only hope is that the companies that store all that personal data and facilitate those online conversations — Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others — stick to their guns and refuse to share that information without all the proper court documentation.
But recent articles suggest that various companies have been complying or even collaborating with the NSA. Microsoft comes off particularly badly with allegations that they built backdoors into their software for NSA snoops — although they've denied the allegations and have asked the NSA for permission to reveal the details of how they share information. That request, which they feel will exonerate the company, was denied by the NSA for security reasons, even though the allegations, if left unchallenged, could be extremely damaging to the company.
In a letter to the NSA last week, Microsoft said that no less than the assistance of President Barack Obama was required "to set things right" at this point. It's that serious, and it was followed by another letter written on behalf of 63 tech companies demanding that the NSA publish statistics about intelligence tools and produce quarterly transparency reports.
Without those things, all the tech companies have at this point is denial. In a blog post, Microsoft lead counsel Brad Smith wrote, "We do not provide any government with the ability to break the (Outlook.com) encryption, nor do we provide the government with the encryption keys. When we are legally obligated to comply with demands, we pull the specified content from our servers where it sits in an unencrypted state, and then we provide it to the government agency."
The thing is it seems that Microsoft and other tech companies have had little choice other than to cooperate with the NSA. It's been revealed that the NSA originally demanded that these companies build back doors into their software to allow unfettered access to data, but the companies fought back against that level of intrusion and eventually an agreement was reached that would see the companies cooperate by handing over information when it's requested and the requests conform to legalities (which, again, don't apply to foreign nationals).
The fact that the NSA won't comply with Microsoft's request to share that information is particularly troublesome because Microsoft is the world's largest software company with software running on over 90 per cent of the world's computers, and the size of its foreign market easily exceeds its domestic one. Apple is the most profitable company in the world, Google is up there, and Facebook is the world's largest social network. These companies could be severely impacted unless these allegations can be refuted to the satisfaction of all the foreign businesses and governments using their software.
Imagine you're a foreign government or an international business using Microsoft products — server software, Office 365, Skype, Outlook, etc. — how comfortable do you feel right now? Right now you're probably pretty worried that state secrets or proprietary information is being stolen from under your nose by the NSA, and you're looking hard at the possibility of shifting everything over to open source Linux.
As well, imagine you're a private individual living outside of the U.S. and the choice is between buying a PS4 or an Xbox One, and you're worried that the NSA and others can snoop on you if you buy the Xbox One, which includes a Kinect attachment with a camera and earphones that can hear everything being said in that room — what console would you buy?
Eventually, the NSA will have no choice but to reveal more precise details about their programs, or risk seeing a number of important American companies that employ tens of thousands of people lose business. Security is important, but in the current economic climate it's nowhere near as important as jobs. America's high tech sector is one of the few bright spots for the economy, but it won't stay that way with NSA shooting it in the foot.