Security or Secured Data


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Yuri Samoilov.

To this day, the effects of the NSA revelations have undoubtedly entailed a myriad of complex consequences and conflicts. Protests over personal privacy, allegations that the US government is like the Stasi, and heated debates over guarding American citizens from terrorist attacks are some of the many events the world has seen.

Silicon Valley, as the forefront of the American technology industry, became a pivotal arena for such conflicts.

“Companies in Silicon Valley have been forced in one way or another to make a stand on where they stand in terms of protecting their customers’ data,” Software Engineer Nick Sullivan says. He also states that “since the revelations from Edward Snowden, cryptography has been more top-of-the mind for the average consumer and the average business owner.”

Formerly a cryptographer at Apple, Sullivan now runs the cryptography group at Silicon Valley’s CloudFlare, a web performance and security company. CloudFlare offers customers internet security services like end-to-end encryption on browsers.

Sullivan tells BTR that he has always been “a large advocate of cryptography for protecting privacy for individuals,” a value also inherent to CloudFlare as a company. The Snowden revelations were “a clear mandate for” CloudFlare to protect their “customers’ privacy from… nation-states or governments or anybody who has wide-scale capabilities of surveillance.”

As such, much to the dismay of the FBI and other leaders in the American federal government, tech companies have taken notable actions to ensure their customers’ data protection. Apple began encouraging encryption on their computer operating systems last fall. In addition, the tech giant now offers end-to-end encryption services on many of its models, like iPhones 3GS and later, iPod touches 3rd Generation and later, plus all iPads. Apple also informs customers that their calls, email, maps, and other functions can be set as private. Google also offers end-to-end encryption for email, as well as protection on Android mobile devices.

Unsurprisingly, such moves have only made matters with the government worse.

“I’ve heard senior Silicon Valley leaders talk about the US government as ‘the enemy’ just as they would talk about China,” Dr. Herbert Lin, Senior Research Scholar for Cyber Policy and Security at Stanford University, writes to BTR.

Lin has worked researching cybersecurity and cyber policy for over two decades to date. According to Lin, leaders in Silicon Valley now “feel they have to take extraordinary measures to protect themselves from the actions of the US government and, while they acknowledge that they are subject to US legal processes, they will insist that the government make its requests only through ‘turning square corners’ and they will provide only what is asked for through such legal processes.”

Despite the widely acknowledged rift, on Feb 13 during the Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection, President Barack Obama seemed like he was trying to mend the relationship. During his speech at Stanford, he put forth an outline of responsibilities to which members of the government and the private sector should adhere. He proposed that both parties should work together to combat the national security threats the United States faces as a nation. Additionally, the government and tech industry should work to share information “as true partners” and learn to constantly evolve with technology.

The last (and most important) mission that the government and Silicon Valley have, the President urged, is to protect the “privacy and civil liberty of the American” population. However strongly he actually does feel on citizens’ rights to guard their information today, Obama acknowledged it is a difficult right for the government to observe.

Looking forth in the political sphere, the issue of Silicon Valley’s action in offering privacy to customers versus the government’s stance that they must guard crime and terrorism is not likely to fade. When Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the Lead on Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women on Feb 24, she was faced with the question of where she stands in the situation. Clinton acknowledged the importance of both sides of the debate but did not make a clear stance.

In addition to the tech industry in Silicon Valley, the Hollywood entertainment industry has become a part of the cybersecurity discussion. Laura Poitras directed the documentary Citizenfour about whistleblower Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations. Citizenfour received the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary, after which Snowden announced that the contents of the film were not about him as a person.

“I don’t really have a role in it,” he told a New York Times forum. “I’ve never really been important in it except as an initial mechanism.”

For whatever credit the whistleblower wishes to take for the NSA revelations, we now live in what has been coined a “Snowden” or “Post-Snowden” era that has offset many complicated battles throughout and within the political, personal, and private spheres.