Check out the following Guardian article:
Spies helped build Silicon Valley. Now the tables are turning
David Cameron wants US tech sector companies to do more to fight terrorism. But they’ve grown too powerful to listen
Wednesday 29 July 2015
If you want to understand how modern British and American intelligence services operate, you could do worse than visit the new exhibition that opens at Bletchley Park this week. It tells the story of code-breaking in the first world war, which paved the way not just for the better-known success story of world war two, but also GCHQ and the NSA’s modern day bulk interception.
A century ago, just as today, intelligence services and network providers used to enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Britain, for example, exploited its dominance of the telegraph system to spy after its companies had built an imperial web of cables that wrapped itself around the world. Britain’s first offensive act of the conflict was to cut Germany’s own undersea cables and install “secret censors” in British company offices around the world that looked out for enemy communications. A staggering 80m cable messages were subject to “censorship” during the war.
In recent decades the US has enjoyed a similar ability to spy on the world thanks to its role in building the internet – what the NSA called “home field advantage”. This worked via two channels. The first was fibre-optic cables passing through either American or British territory, allowing intelligence agencies to install the modern equivalent of secret censors: computerised black boxes that could filter data to look for emails based on “selectors”. The second channel was Silicon Valley – which had thrived thanks to massive Pentagon and NSA subsidies. People around the world sent their communications and stored their data with American companies, whose business model often involved collecting, analysing and monetising that data. This attracted spies like bears to honey. And so Prism was born – requiring the companies themselves to run selectors across their own data. 45,000 selectors were running in 2012. Put together with cable-tapping, this meant that nearly 90,000 people around the world were being spied on.
Building the internet allowed the US to export its values, import other countries’ information through spying and make a lot of money for American corporations along the way. But the relationships have fractured. The Snowden disclosures were one reason – exposure led tech companies to back away from quiet cooperation and make privacy a selling point (even competing with each other as seen in Apple’s CEO blast against Google recently).
At the same time, Isis’s use of social media has increased the state’s desire to get more from these companies, leading to growing tension. It was notable that David Cameron’s speech on extremism last week singled out tech companies for criticism. When their commercial models are built around tracking our likes and dislikes, why do they say it’s too difficult to help when it comes to the fight against terrorism, the prime minister asked.
A big problem for the spies is that during the first world war the cable companies that helped Britain knew who was boss. Today it is more complex. An angry Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook told President Obama that his administration “blew it” when it tried to defend Prism by saying it was only used to spy on foreigners. After all, most of Facebook and Silicon Valley’s customers are foreigners.
The British government criticised Facebook for not spotting private messages from one of the men who went on to kill Lee Rigby. This is the kind of thing Cameron wants the companies to do more on. But whose job is it to spy? The companies are nervous of signing up to a system in which it is their job to scan their customers’ data and proactively report suspicious content, effectively outsourcing the act of spying (and not just the collection of data) to the private sector. Such a deal, tech companies fear, could set a dangerous precedent: if you help Britain when it comes to national security, what do you do when China or Russia come knocking?
On his first day as director of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan launched a volley against Silicon Valley, accusing it of acting as “command and control” for groups like Isis. But since then, the tone has been more conciliatory. What Hannigan may have realised is that companies have the upper hand, partly because the data is with US companies that are subject to US laws. To avoid the Russia and China issue, they assert their co-operation is voluntary and there is not much the British state can do about it.
It was notable that in his speech, Cameron didn’t threaten new legislation. Why? Because he knows that power relations between governments and corporations have shifted since the first world war: modern tech firms are too big to be pushed around.
If they have a vulnerability, it’s their dependence on customers: verbal volleys from politicians and spies are a sign that the real battleground is now public opinion. Companies are gambling that focusing on privacy will win them the trust of the public, while governments in London and Washington are hoping that talking about terrorism will pressure companies to cooperate more. Who wins this tug of war may depend on events that neither party can control, including the prevalence of terrorist attacks. Whatever the case, the old alliance between Silicon Valley and the spies is no more.