We know why the government has its fingers in every computer from Honolulu to Hackensack. FISA, the Patriot Act, national security letters: they're all attempts to prevent the next 9/11. Whether they work or not, many agree they cost us some measure of privacy. It's the age-old liberty vs. security debate, and you know which side I'm on. But now we're starting to see that these measures could cost us much more than our privacy.
Executives from several tech giants met in Silicon Valley yesterday to discuss NSA surveillance. They had a lot to say about the government's domestic spying programs, and none of it was positive. It's no secret how most technology companies feel about their products and customers being forcefully co-opted by FISA requests and national security letters.
Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith had some scathing words, according to Wired:
“If you’re a consumer or a company, you own your email, your text messages, your photos and all the content that you create,” he said. “Even when you put your content in our data centers or on devices that we make, you still own it and you are entitled to the legal protection under our Constitution and our laws. We will not rebuild trust until our government recognizes that fundamental principle.”
There are obvious moral, ethical and ideological reasons why the government shouldn't spy on its citizens. But there are some very practical consequences you might not have thought of.
The most intriguing quote of the session came from Google CEO Eric Schmidt. His company is well known for collecting and monetizing vast amounts of our personal data, however, he's been consistently anti-surveillance. And he has a good reason:
Governments, he said, will eventually just say, “we want our own internet…and we don’t want other people in it.” The cost will be huge in terms of shared knowledge, discoveries, and science. It will also be expensive, since the cost of running data centers in every country where they have customers may be too much for some firms to handle.
As of now, at least 20 countries have already proposed walling off their digital data from the global Internet to keep it out of the hands of the NSA. Schmidt envisions a fragmented Internet with borders just like countries have physical borders with security and checkpoints. This would definitely have a negative impact on the global economy. For better or worse, the Internet is built on the open exchange of information. Companies like Google and Facebook rely on that information flowing freely and securely across borders.
We've already begun seeing the effects. Our browsing habits have dramatically changed since Edward Snowden's revelations. If you are concerned about your digital privacy, click here to keep the NSA off your computer.