By September 5, The Guardian exposed documents on the NSA’s SIGINT program stating that the NSA “actively engages US and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs.” The document assures its readers that, “To the consumer and other adversaries, however, the systems’ security remains intact...successfully exploiting systems of interest within the ever-more integrated and security-focused global communications environment...by investing in corporate partnerships and providing new access to intelligence sources...”
Linger for a moment on the NSA’s word choice and sentence construction. In NSA-speak “consumers” are cast as a subset of a larger category called “adversaries.” As set and subset, the two groups share a single preposition. The clarity is bracing. As consumers we had come full circle from an involuntary role as providers of materiel for the new weapons system to now also being its adversaries and thus its targets. The idea of consumers as adversaries was a routine aspect of the NSA’s prevailing logic. Bulk data collection assumed that because anyone might be the enemy, everyone was a suspect.
Among the big tech companies the treating the consumer as bullet and bullseye, was established practice. In this context perhaps the prospect of engaging with the NSA seemed like a reasonable extension of “best practice.” Already in 2009 Google CEO Eric Schmidt had displayed an arrogant indifference toward privacy concerns when he commented, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place...the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time...we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.”
In retrospect one finds news in Schmidt’s words: the suggestion that the intermeshing of private and state power was already well underway, that even search data were candidates for scrutiny, and, of greatest concern, that all of this had come to be regarded, in Schmidt’s mind at least, as a matter of course.
After release of the SIGINT documents, the tech companies denied all knowledge of their contents. But the Guardian’s reporting quoted a former White House official who alluded to a long productive working relationship between the companies and the NSA. Had Google and Facebook learned surveillance tactics from the NSA in the first place? Or was it the other way around? The identity of the military-informational complex was taking shape along with its assumptions, attitudes, interests, and perspectives. Armaments production was well underway. As Walter Adams lamented a half century ago, under these conditions it is ludicrous to expect our governments to impose the people’s interests on a technology sector that is the critical source of its weapons. It is equally ridiculous to imagine that big tech can represent the people’s interests to the U.S. or any or government. Their posturing as our champions is simply brilliant public relations.