The NSA has been abusing its power and spying on the American people for a long time, and as we reported back in September, much of that abuse came with the cooperation of some of the largest technology giants. In the same month, Dennis also reported about some of the concerns that Windows 8 could have a Trojan horse back door for both the NSA and China.
All of this bad publicity sent executives at tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Google reeling after the public outcry over privacy and security concerns. The public no longer feels safe communicating private information on Facebook, and trust of the Microsoft operating system is at an all-time low. Jokes abound across the Internet about how Google web searches are being monitored by the NSA.
In early December, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter all entered into damage-control mode, turning against the NSA and promising users that they are investing in new security technologies to protect users from snooping efforts of the U.S. government. Up until now, these tech giants tried to absorb the brunt of public outcry by demanding that the government come clean on the actual responsibility of the companies when private information is requested by a government agency. Instead, the NSA itself has been conducting PR damage control and leaving the tech companies to sway in the public wind.
Now, those tech giants are swearing allegiance to the American people, and working on technologies that will block NSA attempts to peek in on user communications and data.
Tech Giants Fight Back
Unfortunately, simple encryption is no longer enough. We’ve previously reported how the NSA can overcome nearly all encryption algorithms out there. All the agency needed was a combination crypto-wizardry technology and (sometimes) a court-order.
Now, executives who are desperately seeking to protect their brands, are publicly stating that they are siding with consumers and working to block government spying on user data. Yahoo executives promised to encrypt the Yahoo email service and related data by March of 2014. While encryption isn’t a sure-fire protection, it at least makes it much more difficult for 3rd parties to spy on the message transmissions.
Tech Companies Jump on the Bandwagon
Every company is now making a very public show of standing against government spying. Google reported that it is working harder to encrypt any user data passed between its data centers, and it is using more fiber optic links between those data centers. Fiber optic cables are much more difficult to tap into, because transfers are light-related, not electrical signals. Google also says that it changes its encryption keys often, so even if the NSA cracks into an existing encryption algorithm, it will have to “re-crack” the encryption after Google changes the security keys.
Not impossible for the NSA, but much more difficult.
Facebook publicly reported that it has added an additional encryption method to its algorithm that will prevent access to encrypted data even if the security key is obtained or cracked. Also, secure browsing (the https at the start of the URL in your browser) is now enabled by default when you visit Facebook.com.
Microsoft – one of the companies hardest-hit in the NSA spying scandals, sued the government and became the leading company that called for more accountability from the U.S. government for when it needs to obtain private user data.
Finally, as of November of 2013, Twitter officially introduced a new form of security called “perfect forward security”, which doesn’t rely on a permanent key for all sessions that take place between a user and Twitter servers. Instead, perfect forward security requires a brand new “session key” every single time the user opens a new session. This means that should the NSA or anyone else obtain or crack any one key, they would only have access to information from just one session. Once the user starts a new session, a new key is obtained and transmissions are once again fully encrypted from spying.
What sparked all of these efforts by corporate tech giants was not only the public outcry, but the fact that disclosures about the NSA spying were starting to affect the bottom lines of these companies. Stock prices were dropping. According to USA Today, 19% of consumers have been doing banking online, and this year there has been 14% fewer people shopping online. That amounts to a major effect on the digital economy, directly impacting a trust for online transactions that took decades to build up.
It may be a very long time before the American public begins trusting online companies, and online transactions, as deeply as before it was revealed that the NSA and the U.S. government was using the Internet to spy on innocent, private American citizens, as part of its vast effort to capture terrorists and spies. Until the U.S. government stops viewing private citizens as “collateral damage” in its online war against the bad guys, it will only continue to harm the economy, which is becoming more and more Internet based.