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Does the NSA or Google Spy More on You? [Burning Questions Ep. 4]

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Today’s Burning Question for online privacy expert John Sileo:

“Who is the bigger spy, the NSA or Google?”

I thought that was a really fascinating question.  Of course, it comes because in the last couple of months the NSA has been outed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee.  The NSA (National Security Agency) has been spying on our phone calls- who we’re calling and when, our emails- who we’re emailing and what about, and even our social media posts.

The latest scandal is called “Muscular”.  Somehow, the NSA has gotten between the transmissions of Google and Yahoo.  In other words, the NSA has been “sniffing” the emails going back and forth between the two largest email providers in the US and this has angered the tech giants like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook.

Recently there was an article in the New York Times about the tech companies wanting to defend their privacy.  In particular, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, has gone on the record to the Wall Street Journal talking about how we need to do a better job defending our privacy.  (Watch the video embedded in our BQ video.)

Let’s take a look at a few of Schmidt’s comments.  First, he said, “You have to take a strong position in favor of privacy.  Do you really want the government tracking all of your information?”  I find it very ironic that this man whose company tracks all of our information is asking this question!  You could substitute Google’s company name for government:  “Do you really want Google tracking all of your information?”  Here he is calling for privacy on one hand and violating it on the other.

The second statement that is fascinating is, “Let’s start with appropriate oversight and transparency.  You don’t have to violate the privacy of every single citizen in America in order to find them.”  You might also say you don’t have to violate the privacy of every single citizen or track the privacy of every single user of Google in order to market to them.  It takes a lot of gumption for somebody who is so focused on collecting our private data to say that the NSA is collecting too much information!

So, the question again is, “Who is the bigger spy, the NSA or Google?”  Well, of course, the NSA is much larger and is collecting more information, but mostly thanks to companies like Google.

John Sileo is a keynote speaker and online privacy expert, as well as the CEO of The Sileo Group, which helps organizations to protect the privacy that drives their profitability. Recent engagements include presentations at The Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman as well as media appearances on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.

USA Today MUSCULUR

Congress Fails to Limit NSA Surveillance Using Patriot Act Loophole

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NSA Surveillance includes the collection of your phone and email records for the sake of detecting and disrupting terrorism. The practice has proven effective, but the scope of the data collected (every phone call and email available, even if you are innocent) has raised eyebrows.

Congress, in a rare show of bipartisan agreement, may be leaning toward limiting the amount of data the NSA can collect.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., backed by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., put forth an amendment that would restrict the NSA’s ability to collect data under the Patriot Act on people not connected to an ongoing investigation.  The action was initiated after Edward Snowden, a government contract worker, leaked highly classified data to the media, revealing that the NSA has secretly collected phone and email records on millions of Americans without their knowledge or consent.

The bipartisan support was counterbalanced by a bipartisan effort to defeat it, with both House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi opposing it.  In the end, the amendment to a defense spending bill was narrowly defeated by a vote of 217-205.

Still, the close vote may be indicative of a changing viewpoint in Washington: that NSA Surveillance should have oversight.  As Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., an Intelligence Committee member stated, “I think as more and more people come to understand the breadth of the authorizations that the NSA and other intelligence agencies have, they start to get a little worried about the encroachment on their privacy, and that’s absolutely fair.”

Himes stressed that the NSA is not out of bounds with their actions. “They are acting pursuant to very clear authority under Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” Himes said.   (215 provides authority for the surveillance programs.) But, he said, “that law is too broadly worded and being interpreted a little broadly.”

When the Patriot Act was introduced, there was an implicit understanding that the bill would come with a sunset period. In other words, the Act would be rolled back as the threat diminished. That rollback has never really taken place, and the NSA continues to exploit our short term memories by utilizing 215 to gather more information than the average American, heck, the average Congressperson, would be comfortable with. Once power is given, it’s exceptionally difficult to take it back. But Congress may be moving in the right direction.

Will Adams, Amash’s press secretary pointed out, “It was the first time that either house of Congress has gone on the record concerning NSA’s blanket surveillance since the NSA leaks started coming out.” He continued, “We got 205 votes despite the fact that we were up against the entire establishment in Washington…The civil liberties of Americans is not a partisan issue.”

Bill sponsor Conyers said in a statement to reporters, “This discussion is going to be examined continually … as long as we have this many members in the House of Representatives that are saying it’s ok to collect all the records you want just as long as you make sure you don’t let it go anywhere else. That is the beginning of the wrong direction in a democratic society.”

Despite the defeat, the debate has led to talk of cutting funding and denying the NSA the authority to continue its data collection. Talk in Washington, however, seems to be fairly cheap. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., cautioned the administration that if it “continues to turn a deaf ear to the American public’s outcry, Section 215 will not have the necessary support to be reauthorized in 2015.”  He further stated, “The proper balance between privacy and security has been lost.”

I’m not suggesting that the entire NSA program be scrapped, I’m simply asking for more transparency as to what is being gathered, and a certain assurance that private data is only being collected and retained on suspects actually under suspicion, not on every American citizen.

John Sileo is a cyber security keynote speaker and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy think tank that trains organizations to harness the power of their digital footprint. Sileo’s clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and businesses looking to protect the information that makes them profitable.

Keeping Grounded When the Surveillance Accusations Start to Fly

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NSAI’m in the business of encouraging people to keep their guard up.  I’m always telling people to watch for signs of something that doesn’t feel quite right, take precautionary measures, and stay informed.  But even I have to question the tactics some are recommending when it comes to reacting to the NSA PRISM surveillance program leaked by Edward Snowden.  In a previous post on this topic, I said it isn’t a black or white argument, but some people are asking you to make it one.

Best-selling author, technology expert and Columbia Law School professor, Tim Wu, has said that web users have a responsibility to quit Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and Skype if it is indeed verified that they have been collaborating with the NSA.  In fact, Wu bluntly proclaimed, “Quit Facebook and use another search engine. It’s simple.  It’s nice to keep in touch with your friends. But I think if you find out if it’s true that these companies are involved in these surveillance programs you should just quit.”  Wu acknowledged that there is still much to learn about this program and admitted it was no surprise that PRISM exists, saying, “When you have enormous concentrations of data in a few hands, spying becomes very easy.”

Of course, the companies in question vehemently deny such complicit cooperation.  Google CEO Larry Page stated, “any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said reports of Facebook’s involvement are “outrageous,” adding  “Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the U.S. or any other government direct access to our servers.”  Yahoo’s Ron Bell stated, “The notion that Yahoo! gives any federal agency vast or unfettered access to our users’ records is categorically false.”  Similar statements were issued by from spokespersons for Apple, Microsoft and others accused of complying.

To add fuel to the fire of this debate, top US intelligence officials have stepped forth with their own comments.  US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserts the National Security Agency’s PRISM program is “not an undisclosed collection or data mining program” but instead “an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information.”

In addition, claims that the sweeping surveillance programs have prevented multiple attacks keep swelling.  Immediately following the leak, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers cited one attack that he said was thwarted by the program, but would not give specifics.  Since that time, however, there have been dozens of reports of foiled terrorist attempts, from a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange to an attack against the New York subway system, that were prevented because of the surveillance.  Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said more than 50 attacks have been averted.  Alexander also stated that Snowden’s leaks have caused “irreversible and significant damage to this nation” and undermined the U.S. relationship with allies.

No doubt, the debate over the propriety, as well as the effect, of Snowden’s actions will rage on for some time.  There will be others who recommend and take drastic actions, such as quitting the Internet giants, for fear of their safety and/or privacy.  The key is to keep cool, find the facts and then NOT forget. The biggest risk is that our discomfort will be forgotten in a week when the next big topic arises. You can take the reasonable steps of doing your research, acting in calculated moderation and following through on what YOU feel is important.

John Sileo is a keynote speaker and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy think tank that trains organizations to harness the power of their digital footprint. Sileo’s clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and businesses looking to protect the information that makes them profitable.