According to Wired’s Threat Level blog, Google is taking a rather tougher stance towards the US federal government when it comes to requests for cloud-stored data for investigations. The company is now, it says, asking for judicial warrants from state organisations. As Wired points out, even though this might seem ethically sound, it is dubious legal ground as the US Electronic Privacy Communications Act allows the federal government access to such documents without a warrant. And yet, no court challenge has yet been made by the government to Google’s stance.
So what is going on here? Is Google serious about taking on ‘the feds’ in favour of users? Is this new pro-user line by Google merely contingent and once something ‘really important’ is demanded, the company would cave in? Is there some other kind of backroom deal? Is Google actually being rather cynical because the company knows that the NSA can access everything they have anyway (and probably by arrangement – after all, the NSA helped Google out a lot in its battle with China’s authorities)? I suspect there is much more to this apparently casual revelation…
A US Federal Court judge has ruled that the National Security Agency’s secret domestic wiretapping program of internal terrorist suspects, was illegal according to the New York Times. The activity violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which was put into place after the various inquiries into the activities of the FBI and NSA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I’ve said before, that’s hardly a surprise and don’t think this has got a whole lot to do with George W. Bush in particular. Intelligence services might claim to operate under laws but in reality their priorities are not bound by them.But there’s a kind of cycle of collective amnesia that goes on with these inquiries and rulings. This time, the NSA was basically doing almost exactly the same thing as in the earlier period. Some minor superficial changes will occur. People will forget about it. The NSA will carry on. Then in 20 years time, there will be something else that will reveal again the same kinds of activities. Cue collective shock again. And so on. It would take a lot more continual public oversight and openness for them to be held properly to account, and if they were, they’d be very different entities. But that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be held to account: the fact that most democratic nations have what amounts to a secret state within the state that may have very different priorities than the official government or the people should be profoundly worrying. Yet it seems to be such an enormous breach of the democratic ideal that it goes largely unnoticed.
Google is, as I type this, closing down its Chinese site as the first stage of its withdrawal of service from mainland China, in response to numerous attacks on the company’s computers from hackers allegedly connected to the Chinese state and ongoing demands to provide a censored service with which they felt they could not comply. The company claims that Chinese users will still be able to use Google, only through the special Hong Kong website, http://www.google.com.hk, which for historical reasons falls outside the Chinese state’s Internet control regime. Whether this will mean that the site will actually be accessible to Chinese Net users is debateable. Some say they cannot access it already. There are also numerous ‘fake Google’ sites that have sprung up to try to make some fast cash out of the situation.
But there’s more to this of course. Google has been widely reported to have opened its doors to the US National Security Agency (NSA) in order, they say, to solve the hacking issue, but the NSA only get involved in matters of US national security – if Google is essentially saying it is effectively beholden to US intelligence policy and interests, I am not sure that this is a whole lot better than bowing to China. You can be sure as well, that once invited in, the NSA will insinuate themselves into the company. Having a proper official backdoor into Google would make things a lot easier for the NSA, especially in populating its shiny new data warehouse in Utah…
A lot of my current thinking is based around the dynamic of opening / closing. I’ve been considering the way in which elements of state power, and in particular the military and intelligence agencies, regard openness per se as a threat. Now, Wired’s Threat Level blog (just about my favourite reading right now), has an excellent take on the response to what has been termed (in a deliberately mixed-up phrase) the ‘open-source insurgency’. This is the way in which the ex-head of US intelligence, now working for ‘contractor’*, Booz Allen Hamilton, Michael McConnell. is promoting the re-engineering of the Internet. This is necessary, it is argued, because the current openness of the Net means that terrorists and criminals can flourish. This re-engineering would “make attribution, geo-location, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable”. In other words to close the Internet. remove everything that is innovative and democratic about it, and make it easier for agencies like the NSA to monitor it.
Along with a whole raft of measures like extending ‘lawful access’ regimes, introducing corporate-biased copyright and anti-peer-2-peer legislation, censorship and Net filtering, this is an attack on what the Internet has become and to turn it into something simply for consumption – something, in other words, more like television. But there is another layer here too – the US military, I suspect, still has a nostalgic longing for when the Internet was its private domain. It’s a long way from its origins, and now perhaps the military want it back. But it isn’t theirs anymore, it’s ours and we need to fight for it.
* or, more accurately, arm’s length consulting agency of the US state.
John Young’s Cryptome is perhaps the world’s most informative repository of (now, not so) secret documents and whistleblower’s information. Around since 1996, and with its multiple mirror-sites and determined owner, governments have tried and failed to close it down. However now the evil monopolist and maker of appalling bloatware, Microsoft, has succeeded where states have failed by issuing copyright infringement threats against its ISP, Network Solutions. This apparently worried the company more than any government, and as seems to be the usual craven attitude in these cases, the ISP backed down. According to Wired, they have even put a block on the transfer of the domain name so John Young can’t move ISPs…
The problem was that Cryptome published a short Microsoft document, the Microsoft Online Services Global Criminal Compliance Handbook, about the storage and handling of user data held on online servers,which also offers advice on subpoena tactics, info about state backdoors and more. The odd thing is that this document is old news and openly available elsewhere on the web, including via the link above. Given Microsoft’s well-documented links to US intelligence, could this just be an excuse to take out Cryptome, which has revealed so much about the National Security Agency over the years? Or is this just Microsoft’s usual clumsy, blinkered legal blundering?