Over the past couple of days, a John Naughton column on Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations has been making the rounds of the Internet. It has been both derided and commended for one of Naughton's central claims: that the Snowden revelations spell the end of the Internet as a “truly global network”. From the column:
the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, ie divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty.
no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you're thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.
Naughton's argument has only been strengthened by the latest round of Snowden's leaks. Glenn Greenwald's latest article reveals an NSA tool called XKeyscore, that allows analysts to use a simple search form to mine the vast stores of NSA data. It gives analysts access to “'nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet', including the content of emails, websites visited and searches, as well as their metadata.” This even includes things like Facebook chat and other “private” messengers. According to the latest Snowden leaks, any forms of unencrypted communication that “transit” or “terminate” in the United States will be vacuumed up by the NSA, and can be searched without any oversight, by an NSA analyst.
Unfortunately, as US companies command such an outsize role in the Internet establishment, this means virtually all of our communication at least “transits” the United States. If you use Gmail or Yahoo for your email, if you keep in touch with your friends on Facebook or via Skype, and especially if you use Microsoft's new Outlook email provider (it is claimed Outlook was built with a back door for the NSA), all of your content on those platforms is “transiting” the United States, and is therefore up for grabs by the NSA.
Particularly worrying for me is that I have no fourth Ammendment protections under the US constitution. The NSA, the Obama Administration, and many of the Senators and Congressmen who have fronted the cameras, have all proudly proclaimed the “protections” afforded by the FISA courts and other “oversight”. But these do not necessarily apply to the communications between Americans and foreigners, and definitely do not apply to foreigners. It does not apply to me. A government I have absolutely no control over is forcing companies I do business with to hand over my data. This is why John Naughton is correct. This cannot stand.
Obviously we are far too entrenched to switch over immediately. Even if there already were local substitutes to the products we enjoy from Google and Dropbox and Yahoo, we would not switch over immediately. But the NSA revelations will foster those products, and we will gradually move over. If my information is going to be seized by a government (and it undoubtedly will be), I want it to be a government accountable to me. A government I can lobby to alter the laws to protect my privacy, and to tighten the rules on search and seizure. And undoubtedly many around the world feel similarly, just look at all the Dropbox alternatives that have sprung up from Switzerland to Norway, as users want their data to be protected by their country's laws.