NSA Scandal Sends Brands Scrambling to Defend Themselves as Users Question Privacy

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The government’s infringement on communicative freedom and privacy is hardly a new topic in America. 

Starting in the late-1940s, the US underwent a period called the “Second Red Scare,” which gave birth to the era of “McCarthyism,” a time in America where many citizens feared their phone lines were being tapped. Today, heightened security over terrorist activity has caused the nation’s security divisions to implement such tactics yet again, though the digital age poses a much greater challenge to operations as the public shares more, but also knows more. 

Privacy concerns have peaked as The Guardian recently published a series of reports documenting questionable actions by the US National Security Agency. Late last week, The Guardian revealed its source— Edward Snowden, a former US intelligence operative who consciously leaked the NSA program called “PRISM.” According to CNN, PRISM is a top secret, on-going program that entitles the NSA “to extract the details of people’s online activities—including audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and other materials.”

Yet, unlike past federal privacy infringements, the PRISM scandal has implicated major brands including Verizon, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL, Apple and Skype. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a public note on Facebook claiming, “We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday,” and Google CEO Larry Page wrote an open letter sharing similar sentiments, other brands haven’t been nearly as forthright, although all have denied knowledge of the program.[more]

Awareness was heightened last week when The Guardian reported that the NSA had demanded that Verizon provide particular phone call details from dates spanning April through July, 2012. Those claims were expanded to include inquiries into the online and telephone activities of millions of Americans, as Snowden produced a PRISM program slideshow with clear, visual markings implicating the brands. 

Snowden, who remains in hiding, said, “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything.  With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”

With social companies like Facebook already the focus of ongoing privacy concerns, the mere association with a secret federal government agency does not bode well for brand reputation. Without a clean exoneration—or being officially granted the right to disclose the NSA’s requests—internet and communication brands will face an uphill battle regaining the trust of their once loyal customers. 

Brands aren’t sitting idly by, though. As of Tuesday, the ACLU has filed suit against the Obama administration’s national security team over the unit’s collection of Verizon phone records.

“This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU deputy legal director, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation.” 

As a Verizon customer itself, the ACLU said that the surveillance programs “compromises sensitive information about its work” and prevent it from communicating freely, the newspaper reports. 

While the ACLU was the first to take legal action, other implicated brands have made attempts to clear their name. To combat the bad press, Google and Facebook, and now Microsoft and Twitter, who was not originally among those named, have been taking active roles in their defense, with the brands requesting clearance from the NSA to disclose more details of the government agency’s inquiries into the brands’ data. By doing so, the brands hope to more clearly demonstrate how a users’ data is used or not used. 

According to the Washington Post, Facebook’s general counsel Ted Ullyot asked the government to allow the company to disclose “information about the size and scope of national security requests.” Facebook would them publish the information in order to give users a “complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond,” he said. 

The Guardian notes that companies are not allowed to disclose the fact that they have been served a National Security Letter, which details the data request by the NSA. Such data is secretly collected and protected under FISA, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. While companies like Microsoft, Google and Twitter publish transparency reports that document NSA requests, the companies are barred from revealing requests that are protected under FISA. 

“Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including Fisa orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues,” Microsoft said in an emailed statement to Reuters. 

But perhaps the most proactive “save face” campaign has been started by Mozilla, the non-profit parent of popular web browser Firefox, who has fired back at the NSA with a campaign calling for full disclosure of spying programs. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mozilla and “85 other organizations and companies” have teamed-up to launch the site StopWatching.US, “a campaign that encourages online users to email Congress with a prewritten letter demanding that the government unveil ‘the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.’”

“Mozilla believes in an Internet where we do not have to fear that everything we do is being tracked, monitored and logged by either companies or governments,” the company wrote in a blog post. “And we believe in a government whose actions are visible, transparent and accountable.”

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