The Failure of the Big Companies
With the NSA revelations, the information panopticon swells in scale and scope, invisible, ubiquitous, inscrutable. We are now the unwitting source of its food supply too, dutifully contributing our bits to its gargantuan data appetite, enslaved to our own secret inspection. Even if we concede there are legitimate security reasons for their data mining, the Guardian’s recent reporting suggests that the NSA now functions without democratic oversight´or protection. This is intolerable.
We know the technology oligarchs ––Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft –– complied with NSA requests for user data. How compliant were they? Yahoo made its case in a secret court that the broad requests were unconstitutional, and they lost. This presumably discouraged other companies from doing the same. There remains a great deal to be learned about precisely what occurred, with more news breaking daily. Now we discover that, according to the New York Times, Facebook put together teams to enable more complete cooperation with the NSA, and that its security chief left the company to join the NSA. „The future holds the prospect of ever greater cooperation between Silicon Valley and the N.S.A. because data storage is expected to increase at an annual compound rate of 53 percent through 2016, according to the International Data Corporation,” wrote the NYT reporters.
What does seem clear is that none of the companies chose to resist NSA demands. Nor did they choose to stand together and fight, or to inform their billions of users about practices that some of them believed were illegal. These companies own the Internet! What might their shared strength and leadership have accomplished? Instead they chose to treat the whole problem as an externality, outside their range of responsibility. For whom did their bells toll? If they are ever to regain our trust, it’s precisely that mentality that has to change. They must stand with our interests. Is there any sign on the horizon that they understand this even now?
The New Lords of the Ring
On May 16, barely a month before the NSA revelations, a conference was held at SRI in Menlo Park, California on one of the hottest new themes in the digital world, „the Internet of Everything.” The vision is stunning...every thing will be connected. The unpaid data entry labor force expands from us to our bodies and the objects that surround us: lights, thermostats, cars, coffee pots, shades, doors, appliances, but also blood pressure and composition, body temperature, organ functions, pulse rates, skin response... If the new Lords of the Ring have their way, everything from our telephones to our toasters to our tears will be reborn in the next great wave of data. Yes, each step will originate in a good cause, but how long will it take before the old dream is resurrected in this „paradise” of perfect data...how long until our tears fund a new regime of inspection and conformity? How long before the nano-drones are programmed to detect your biometric imprint?
This is the next freight train primed to carry the ancient dream and loaded with cash. In a short briefing paper Cisco’s CEO John Chambers claimed that $14.4 trillion of potential economic value is at stake for global private sector businesses over the next decade. It will present „technology, organizational, process, regulatory, cultural, and other challenges,” he wrote, „we need to collectively solve them.” What will Cisco do to solve these challenges? How do we insist that there is no innovation we will accept without its relevant democratic and commercial safeguards? Addressing these issues must be integral to innovation, not external to it and left for someone, somewhere, someday to tackle.