Politics

Why are companies so accommodating to the NSA?

Why are companies so accommodating to the NSA?

There are plenty of constitutional and political questions about the NSA’s widespread data mining and Prism program; but one one that is the most curious regards the cooperation tech firms offered government. Because according to initial reports, it seems that their assistance exceeded even the FISA court demands.

When the story broke, carefully worded denials from Google and others giant tech corporations were drafted to explain that they had never given government direct access to company servers, which is true but misleading.

Here is the New York Times:

When government officials came to Silicon Valley to demand easier ways for the world’s largest Internet companies to turn over user data as part of a secret surveillance program, the companies bristled. In the end, though, many cooperated at least a bit.

Twitter declined to make it easier for the government. But other companies were more compliant, according to people briefed on the negotiations. They opened discussions with national security officials about developing technical methods to more efficiently and securely share the personal data of foreign users in response to lawful government requests. And in some cases, they changed their computer systems to do so.

Actually, it turns out that Prism program was created after federal authorities “pressed for easier access to data they were entitled to under previous orders granted by the secret Fisa court”. Why? These companies are obligated to comply with a FISA order yes, but, as the piece points out, they are under no obligation to make it easier for government to snoop. Yet most of them (it seems that Twitter was the exception) did so. Did they change their computer systems out of a sense of deep patriotism? Did they do it for national security reasons? Doubtful.

One answer might be that these companies were making a business decisions – rent seeking. Maybe it was easier to give in. Less expensive. Less intrusive. Maybe if you were a CEO facing off with a hyperactive, regulatory happy administration, you might feel immense pressure to comply for the sake of preservation. You may feel forced to cooperate due to the close relationship you’ve built with those in power — people who are increasingly involved in meting out regulations that help you cement your position in the marketplace.

Or you may, if you’re just a sycophantic CEO, do it for political reasons. Obama has a long and cozy relationship with Google (“Obama appears to have found a corporate kindred spirit”! says this CNN/Money piece “Obama & Google (a love story)“ from 2009). Two of the top three sources of contributions to  Obama’s 2012 campaign were from Microsoft and Google.  And it’s not as if Google hasn’t fought against court orders demanding they release user information before. I guess there’s something different about 20o6 and 2013.

Whatever the case, sound decision making has been corrupted.

On a tangential note: Did you know that Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that employed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, received over $100 million in stimulus money – one of highest private-sector recipient of money in DC? Did you know that Reginald Van Lee, vice president in the DC office, gave Obama and Obama-related groups over $200,000 last election cycle alone?

You have to wonder if the President Barack Obama, who can’t stop griping about the threat free speech from rogue conservative groups have on “democracy” believes this sort of relationship is unseemly? I’m not implying anyone did anything illegal; I’m implying that the perception (and more than likely the reality) is that if Booz Allen Hamilton makes life easy for those in charge and those in charge send Booz Allen Hamilton huge government checks. In 2012, around 23 percent of the company’s revenue ($1.3 billion) was earned from U.S. intelligence agencies.

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