NSA scandal, tech companies, and the larger picture

One of the more serious ramifications of this debacle might be to US tech companies, who were complicit (willfully or via coercion) with the NSA, or perhaps whose products were just insecure and broken into by the NSA.

Of course, we don’t know which companies are complicit.

The latest Snowden revelations did not refer to any technology companies by name as having collaborated with the intelligence services. Intel and Cisco Systems both repeated earlier denials that they had ever put back doors in any of their products.

Are Intel and Cisco telling the truth, or playing word games, or perhaps just making a direct lie? It’s hard to know, or to trust anyone in government or at any large corporation. Even if I trust a particular government official or corporate spokesperson, that person might be ignorant of complicity, or might feel forced to lie due to NSLs (national security letters) that forbid admission of complicity with the NSA.

Unsurprisingly, it does seem that the NSA can spy on smart phones, including Android, IPhone, and BlackBerry devices. I’m not exactly clear what this means and what prerequisites would need to be in place for the NSA to, for example, spy on my phone. It’s hard to know what the scope is and how concerned we should be. (Phone security is a substantial concern aside from NSA snooping, but that is a larger topic.)

As of now, my gravest concern is that the short-sighted approach that we (the US gov’t, NSA, et al) are taking on security will undermine the very things that have bestowed greater freedom and prosperity on us all. In the most cynical and gloomy scenario, foreign governments and businesses will choose alternatives to US products and services. The result in economic terms will be bad for them and for the US, as aggregate efficiency gains decline and fall back to nationalism, where countries trust their own, home-grown platforms over those provided by Microsoft, Google, Apple, Intel, Cisco, and others. Globalization has afforded us both political benefits and economic gains. But distrust of the world’s superpower and her mega-corps means that anything associated with “America” will be shunned. Privacy and security of American’s products and services is far from assured and even actively undermined. Legitimate outrage implies retaliation (in some form), and this includes boycotting such products, building them in one’s own country, or placing restrictions on their use domestically (in the non-US countries).

Will we see the rise of jingoism and economic protectionism as a result of this mass-spying? I doubt things will turn out so bad. But frankly, it’s not worth the risk. We need the NSA to spy and collect surveillance, but not like this. Not by compelling companies to backdoor their products or by purposefully crippling encryption; not by allowing the NSA to spy on Americans and then lying about it.

Most important of all, we need clarity on the role of the NSA in our lives and in their impact on American products and services. American’s role in the world has arguably been a net positive, fomenting globalized capitalism and exporting cherished principles like fair rule of law and individual rights. The NSA has damaged all of the ideals we Americans cherish. Tactical advantage has supplanted long-term strategic thinking. It’s time we end this nonsense.

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