In light of the recent disclosures by Edward Snowden about the U.S. government’s massive electronic spying program, we decided to interview an expert on the topic of privacy. Pratap Chatterjee is an investigative journalist and producer. He is the author of “Halliburton’s Army” (Nation Books, 2009) “Iraq Inc.: A Profitable Occupation” (Seven Stories Press, 2004) and “The Earth Brokers” (Routledge Press, 1994). He has many years of experience working in radio, print and digital media, including hosting a weekly radio show on Berkeley station KPFA, working as global environment editor for InterPress Service and as a freelance writer for the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Independent of London. He has won five Project Censored awards as well as a Silver Reel from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for his work in Afghanistan, and the best business story award from the National Newspaper Association (US), among others. He has also appeared as a commentator on numerous radio and television shows ranging from BBC World Service, CNN International, Democracy Now!, Fox and MSNBC. Pratap serves on the board of Amnesty International USA and Corporate Europe Observatory.
The following is our interview of Mr. Chatterjee.
As a result of information revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the public is now aware of PRISM and other programs that allow the US government’s intelligence agencies to collect data on domestic and foreign users of information and communication technologies, everything from metadata about our phone calls to the content of emails, text messages, and other communications. Much of the outrage is currently being directed at the US government, but what role do IT companies play in all of this? Do they have any option other than to comply with orders to divulge information?
Our lives have become an open book to anyone who has access to our data. Where we go, who we talk to, what we like, what we eat, our secret interests that we Google, are available to anyone who can unlock the information held on our phones and computers. Since most of us subscribe to services from companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, AT&T and Verizon, they can easily be revealed with a few mouse clicks. Edward Snowden has shown that most of these companies volunatrily turn this information over to the government.
The NSA Inspector General report from March 2009 that Snowden released suggests that several companies actually asked the government if they could help. CNET believes that the two leading companies were AT&T and Verizon.
But companies do have options to protect their users. A number of companies have taken steps to limit how much user data they keep and have also been willing to take the government to court. Twitter is a really good example of this. Others are prepared to do the same such as Credo Mobile and Sonic.net.
Sonic does two things, it refuses to hand over data without a search warrant and it limits the data it keeps on users to two weeks.
Twitter says “Twitter users own their Tweets and should have the right to fight invalid government requests”
In fact it has been to court several times to challenge search warrants, defending Malcolm Smith of Occupy and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic politicial who worked with Wikileaks. (It lost both cases)
A good way to evaluate which companies fights for their users is read Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 2013 “Who Has Your Back?” report.
A number of companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have made requests of the US government to be allowed to be more transparent with the public about the orders they received to disclose data. Both companies have recently provided statistics about how often they have received such requests and how they responded. Are these companies just concerned about their images? Is this enough transparency or can more be done?
I think that many of these companies are mostly concerned with their image and it should be noted that when they have made changes, this only came about because of public pressure brought by activists groups like EFF and now, Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing.
First, it should be said that Google has been one of the more transparent companies to date, since they started posting reports on government requests beginning in 2010. Microsoft only followed suit three years later after a major public camapign against them.
Google did respond to Snowden’s revelations by asking permission from the government to release more information. I am hopeful that the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit will force more information out into the open.
Once again EFF has a good list of six things that companies can do:
- Require a warrant for content of communications.
- Tell users about government data requests.
- Publish detailed transparency reports with statistics on how often they provide user data to the government.
- Publish law enforcement guidelines on how they respond to data demands from the government.
- Fight for users’ privacy rights in courts.
- Fight for users’ privacy in Congress notably by joining the Digital Due Process Coalition
Is the US government the only government IT companies are sharing user data with or do other governments make similar requests in the name of national security? In the case of clearly repressive regimes, do companies have a responsibility to refuse to comply with such requests? How would this impact their ability to operate globally?
No, all governments routinely ask for data from internet, social media and phone companies. Plus they all tap people’s phones and hack their data withe the help of surveillance contractors (see next answer). As the Google transparency reports shows, the media companies are most likely to agree to giving information to the U.S. and the UK. The countries they were least likely to respond to were Hungary, Russia, Turkey and Ireland.
Don’t forget that one of the most repressive governments in the world is the U.S. – they routinely kill people in Pakistan and Yemen, hold people indefinitely in Guantanamo and work to topple democracies in places like Honduras and Venezuela. Yet Google complies most often with the U.S. government. Very few countries have a similar record.
Social media companies typically say that they have to comply with the laws of each country and of course that is true. A company like Google faces a lot of pressure since it physically has offices in many countries that can be (and are occasionally) raided, although mostly for tax and anti-competitive reasons.
Companies like Google voluntarily block content in countries like China precisely because of the threat to their business model.
Twitter is under less pressure since they have less offices. But countries can block content from companies and often do which has a financial impact. Pakistan has regularly blocked Youtube for example.
What responsibilities do government contractors like Booz Allen, which supply the manpower and know how to conduct surveillance, have to challenge the US government when surveillance programs may be unconstitutional and violate international human rights to privacy and freedom of expression?
I’m really glad you asked this question! Government contractors like Booz Allen play an altogether different role from the the telecommunications and social media providers who work for us, the public, and so can be persuaded to respond to pressure from the public. (Note that in the next few weeks, we expect to learn a lot more about how the NSA figured out a new way to get data without even asking these providers, by tapping the submarine cables that carry the data around the world)
On the other hand, the surveillance contractors only work for governments and they make billions from mining data and even hacking data, so they do not respond to boycott campaigns. I think the time is ripe to question this kind of work and to investigate these companies for the violation of human rights and the U.S. constitution.
I have written fairly extensively about the world of surveillance contractors, notably with data from Wikileaks, so do check out our report – State of Surveillance.
Here’s a teaser: A German tech company is selling the ability to track “political opponents.” An Italian company promises to remotely seize control of smartphones and photograph their owners. A U.S. company allows security services to “see what they [the targets]see.” A South African company can store recordings of billions of phone calls, forever.
Welcome to the new covert world of surveillance contractors. Shining a light on this $5 billion (and growing) industry, Wikileaks today released “Spy Files”: hundreds of secret sales brochures. The companies involved hand this promotional material only to key contacts — often government agencies and police forces — at trade shows that are closed to the public and the press.
“The tools revealed in these brochures demonstrate the previously unfathomable power of mass surveillance. It makes phone-hacking look like a schoolboy’s game,” says Eric King of Privacy International. “Some of the most tyrannical regimes in the world are buying the power to monitor the behavior and communications of every single citizen — and the technology is so effective that they are able to accomplish this with minimal manpower.”