There’s a fine line between what a government must do to protect its citizens and territorial integrity and what businesses must do to compete successful. The U.S. government has erased that distinction at the expense of high-tech firms’ credibility. It’s time to re-establish the differences, globally, before things get worse.
In general, technology companies in North America have tried since the “war on terror” began in 2001 to focus on their operations while leaving the government to do whatever was deemed necessary to protect its citizens. That’s as it should be. Except when one group’s activities start to dig a deep hole under the other’s feet.
That’s what’s beginning to happen now with the U.S.-government monitoring and bulk collection of telephone and other communications of Americans and others globally. Recent news indicate many U.S.-based data and networking equipment manufacturers as well as internet service providers, software vendors and telecom companies have been labelled co-conspirators in what a government body has now said may not only be ineffective but possibly illegal. (See: U.S. privacy board says NSA phone program illegal, should end – reports).
High-tech companies find themselves today in a ridiculous and indefensible position where they are not just the victims but also considered by many to be accomplices in the government’s PRISM program, under which the National Security Agency (NSA) monitors and collects massive amount of data related to the private communications of American citizens and foreigners.
Many human rights activists, foreign governments and individuals, believe U.S. companies have compromised their integrity by assisting the government in its data collection activities. In turn, high-tech executives have noted their inability to fight a program conducted in secret by a government agency that forces them to hand over information and then slaps a gag order of silence on them, as Apple Inc. CEO Timothy Cook puts it. (See: Apple’s Tim Cook on PRISM: “There Is No Back Door. The Government Doesn’t Have Access To Our Servers”).
Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have sued to challenge the monitoring activities and for the rights to tell the public the type of general information being provided to the government. The NSA doesn’t want high-tech firms to do this even as speculations swirl that the government actually has direct access to the servers of these high-tech firms. The products shipped by data networking equipment manufacturers and PC vendors may also have “back-doors” for the government to snoop on users, according to reports. High-tech firms have denied it but how can they convince a skeptical world when they are not allowed to even discuss their involvement in this program?
The controversy over the legality of the NSA data monitoring program and the role of high-tech firms in it has been very damaging to the entire industry. High-tech and electronics manufacturers didn’t ask to be sucked into the government’s PRISM program. They may understand the need for it and some industry executives might even have surreptitiously supported the NSA out of a sense of national duty but this isn’t what private enterprises do. It’s time to put a big gap between what the government has been doing and the appearance of high-tech industry complicity.
Only the U.S. government can make it clear companies like Cisco, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and telecommunications services providers such as Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon are neither championing nor eagerly participating in the collation and analysis of telephone and other communications data. Even this won’t be enough, though. The government must do more to absolve these enterprises of any blames by allowing them to speak out about the data collection requests.
Some enterprises outside the United States have seized on the impossible position American-headquartered companies find themselves with the PRISM program to market themselves as capable of providing secure communications and data-networking equipment that cannot be compromised by national governments. The strategy may be working but it’s not in their long-term interest. The laws and arguments relied upon by the U.S. government will be used eventually (if they are not already in use) by other countries if the industry doesn't unite to fight this encroachment on corporate rights.
Whether legal or not, the PRISM program is bad for high-tech enterprises on too many levels. It’s time to push hard against it.
DISCLAIMER: Bolaji Ojo is editor-in-chief and publisher of Electronics Purchasing Strategies. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone who promises to base his sometimes biased, possibly ignorant, occasionally irrelevant but absolutely stimulating thoughts on the subjective interpretation of verifiable facts alone. Any comments should be sent to the author at email@example.com.