a hopeful note about PRISM

You know what? I’m feeling optimistic suddenly. Mere hours ago, all of us tech/policy geeks lost our marbles over PRISM. And in the last hour, we’ve got two of the most strongly worded surveillance rebuttals I’ve ever seen from major Internet Companies.

Here’s Google’s CEO Larry Page:

we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period. Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.

And here’s Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook:

Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.

Both companies emphasize government data requests transparency as a critical component of moving forward. I couldn’t agree more. We need to know about every legal process in place that gives government access to private user data.

epiphany?

Could PRISM mark a tech world epiphany that users care about privacy? I hope so. It certainly seems that major PR departments think so. 24-hour unequivocally worded responses from major Internet CEOs means they care. This is a good thing.

retreat is the wrong reaction

I’ve heard folks argue that PRISM means we need to bet it all on end-to-end encryption. I think that’s wrong, because that doesn’t fulfill users’ needs. But even putting that aside: if you believe the government is willing to penetrate professionally managed corporate servers without company permission or legal clarity, do you sincerely believe the government wouldn’t also penetrate your personal computer and steal the data before you encrypt it?

Services and data aggregation play a critical role in providing users the features they need to share, discover, and grow. They’re not going away. Don’t expect PRISM to herald the era of end-to-end encryption and dumb servers. Those will continue to play only a limited role for very specific use cases.

What we need is (1) companies that deeply respect users, and (2) legal processes that protect user data wherever it lives. I think we’re seeing the beginning of (1). Now, Obama, over to you for (2).