The NSA’s Corporate Collaborators

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Emails published by Al Jazeera America, in addition to showing hi-tech executives and senior intelligence officials interacting on a casual first-name basis, reference a government program referred to as the Enduring Security Framework (ESF) [1]. An NPR piece on the ESF back in 2012 offers a nutshell summary of what this initiative is all about [2]:

“For each session, the CEOs get special, top-secret clearances so they can be told about the latest in cyberweaponry. They can then go back to their companies and take steps to deal with the threats they hear about, threats they may not previously have taken seriously. In the words of one government participant: We scare the bejeezus out of them”

This description reinforces the notion that the big bad NSA somehow coerced hi-tech companies into collaboration. Since Ed Snowden’s documents have trickled out into public view companies like Google have tried to distance themselves from the NSA [3], to make public displays of anger [4], to create the impression that they were somehow strong-armed into helping government spies [5] and that they’ve been working to bolster their security against the NSA’s prying eyes [6]. Above all hi-tech companies want to look like they’re siding with their users [7].

These gestures are likely theater, being performed by executives on behalf of quarterly earnings. Such is the beauty of PR. Hi-tech companies don’t really need to fend off government spies but merely provide users with the perception of resistance.

Keep in mind that social media survives by selling user data. Spying is their business model. In padding their bottom lines executives have worked diligently to dilute privacy legislation [8] in addition to garnering a myriad of fines [9]. All of this data harvesting services a data broker industry which generates something in the neighborhood of $200 billion in revenue annually [10].

Those who resist government pressure like Nicholas Merrill, who was running an Internet service provider in New York called Calyx, and Ladar Levison, the former owner of Lavabit, are rare exceptions to the rule. For the big multinationals too much money is at stake to let something like civil liberties get in the way. Google’s Larry Page opines that [11]:

“There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation”

Though the Washington Post may imply otherwise [12], in reality as far as the National Security State is concerned there is very little dividing line between the public sector and the private sector. According to Heidi Boghosian, the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild [13]:

“People need to know that for all intents and purposes, the distinction right now between government and the corporate world is virtually nil. They are hand-in-hand working to gather information about Americans as well as people across the globe, to really be in a race to collect more information than any other country can, because I think in their eyes, having this information, storing it, and being able to access it for years on end is a symbol of power and control. So that you can’t really make that distinction anymore between big business and government.”

Glenn Greenwald echoed this point after the Polk Award ceremony [14]: ”There almost is no division between the private sector and the NSA, or the private sector and the Pentagon, when it comes to the American national security state. They really are essentially one.”

Despite Eric Schmidt’s vocal tirade over NSA spying [15], Google is linked tightly with the elements of the defense industry (e.g. SAIC, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Blackbird) [16] and is no stranger to covert
blundencooperation with the U.S. government. For example, in an e-mailed published by WikiLeaks Fred Burton, a former State Department official and a VP at Stratfor, described the director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, as involved in secret missions near the Iranian border with the support of the White House and the State Department [17]. Ostensibly Burton heard this from Eric Schmidt.

When a provider like Amazon is awarded a $600 million 10-year contract to provide the CIA with cloud services [18] do you suppose that Amazon is inclined to cater to government requests? Think of it this way: Roughly 70% of the intelligence budget goes to the private sector [19]. There are incentives for executives to go along.

Years ago the banking industry single-handedly used its resources to push through the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, effectively repealing the protections of Glass-Steagall, in addition to deregulating the market for derivatives with the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. If the moneyed elite don’t like certain laws, in the absence of a strong countervailing public opinion, they have the means to impose change. Their influence isn’t total but history has shown that it’s often sufficient.

Yahoo has been known to help Chinese officials identify citizens who make critical remarks about the Chinese government [20]. According to news reports from overseas, Microsoft has redesigned Skype so that government security forces in countries like Russia can tap into and monitor Skype traffic [21]. Companies like Microsoft (sitting on 60 billion in cash [22]) or Apple (sitting on $147 billion in cash [23]) aren’t exactly defenseless. Corporate spies choose to collaborate with government spies because the benefits outweigh the negative consequences.

Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal , and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.

Notes.

[1] Jason Leopold, “Exclusive: Emails reveal close Google relationship with NSA,” Al Jazeera America, May 6, 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/5/6/nsa-chief-google.html

[2] Tom Gjelten, “Cyber Briefings ‘Scare The Bejeezus’ Out Of CEOs,” NPR, May 9, 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152296621

[3] Craig Timberg and Tom Hamburger, “Tech executives visit White House to discuss online surveillance issues with Obama,” Washington Post, March 21, 2014,http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/tech-ceos-to-meet-with-obama-this-afternoon/2014/03/21/dfdd7140-b109-11e3-95e8-39bef8e9a48b_story.html

[4] Andy Greenberg, “Zuckerberg Says He Called Obama To Express ‘Frustration’ Over NSA Surveillance,” Forbes, March 13, 2014,http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2014/03/13/zuckerberg-says-he-called-obama-to-express-frustration-over-nsa-surveillance/

[5] Dominic Rushe, “Zuckerberg: US government ‘blew it’ on NSA surveillance,” Guardian, September 11, 2013,http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/sep/11/yahoo-ceo-mayer-jail-nsa-surveillance

[6] Craig Timberg, “Google encrypts data amid backlash against NSA spying,” Washington Post, September 6, 2013,http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/google-encrypts-data-amid-backlash-against-nsa-spying/2013/09/06/9acc3c20-1722-11e3-a2ec-b47e45e6f8ef_story.html

[7] Craig Timberg, “Apple, Facebook, others defy authorities, notify users of secret data demands,” Washington Post, May 1, 2014,http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/apple-facebook-others-defy-authorities-increasingly-notify-users-of-secret-data-demands-after-snowden-revelations/2014/05/01/b41539c6-cfd1-11e3-b812-0c92213941f4_story.html

[8] Melissa Eddy And James Kanter, “Merkel Urges Europe to Tighten Internet Safeguards,” New York Times, July 15, 2013,http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/world/europe/merkel-urges-europe-to-tighten-internet-safeguards.html

[9] Claire Cain Miller, “F.T.C. Fines Google $22.5 Million for Safari Privacy Violations,” New York Times, August 9, 2012, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/09/f-t-c-fines-google-22-5-million-for-safari-privacy-violations/

[10] Yasha Levine, “What Surveillance Valley knows about you,” Pando Daily, December 22, 2013, http://pando.com/2013/12/22/a-peek-into-surveillance-valley/

[11] Claire Cain Miller, “Google Gives a Hint About Its Mystery Barges,” New York Times, November 6, 2013, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/06/google-gives-a-hint-about-its-mystery-barges/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[12] Brian Fung, “NSA e-mails purport to show a ‘close’ relationship with Google. Maybe, maybe not,” Washington Post, May 6, 2014,http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/05/06/nsa-e-mails-purport-to-show-a-close-relationship-with-google-maybe-maybe-not//?print=1

[13] “Segment: Heidi Boghosian on Spying and Civil Liberties,” Moyers and Company, November 8, 2013, http://billmoyers.com/wp-content/themes/billmoyers/transcript-print.php?post=48454

[14] “”We Won’t Succumb to Threats”: Journalists Return to U.S. for First Time Since Revealing NSA Spying,” Democracy Now! April 14, 2014,http://www.democracynow.org/2014/4/14/we_wont_succumb_to_threats_journalists#

[15] Deborah Kan, “Google’s Eric Schmidt Lambasts NSA Over Spying,” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2013,http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304391204579177104151435042

[16] Yasha Levine, “The revolving door between Google and the Department of Defense,” Pando Daily, April 23, 2014, http://pando.com/2014/04/23/the-revolving-door-between-google-and-the-department-of-defense/

[17] Julian Assange, “Google and the NSA: Who’s holding the ‘shit-bag’ now?,” Stringer, August 24, 2013, http://thestringer.com.au/google-and-the-nsa-whos-holding-the-shit-bag-now/#.UzC6EVdBdUo

[18] Frank Konkel, “Sources: Amazon and CIA ink cloud deal,” FCW, March 18, 2013, http://fcw.com/articles/2013/03/18/amazon-cia-cloud.aspx

[19] “Digital Blackwater: How the NSA Gives Private Contractors Control of the Surveillance State,” Democracy Now! June 11, 2013,http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/11/digital_blackwater_how_the_nsa_gives#

[20] Yasha Levine, “Rentacops on desktops: Edward Snowden’s dismissal of Surveillance Valley is wrong, and dangerous,” Pando Daily, December 30, 2013,http://pando.com/2013/12/30/rentacops-on-desktops-edward-snowdens-dangerous-dismissal-of-surveillance-valley/

[21] RAPSI, “FSB, Russian police could tap Skype without court order,” March 14, 2013, Moscow News,
http://www.themoscownews.com/russia/20130314/191336455/FSB-Russian-police-could-tap-Skype-without–court-order.html

[22] Juliette Garside, “Microsoft Windows performance helps cash reserves grow by $5bn in six months,” Guardian, January 24, 2013,http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jan/24/microsoft-cash-reserves-grow-5-billion/print

[23] Emily Chasan, “Apple Now Holds 10% of All Corporate Cash: Moody’s,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2013, http://blogs.wsj.com/cfo/2013/10/01/applenow-holds-10-of-all-corporate-cash-moodys/?mod=trending_now_3

 

Bill Blunden is a journalist whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including “The Rootkit Arsenal” andBehold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex.” Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.

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