January 8, 2016

Google & Other Tech Companies Say “Nay” To Gov. Internet Surveillance

Image from Buzzfeed.
By Megan G.

Yesterday, a group of high-profile American tech companies jointly released a written evidence statement that argues against a new surveillance law the United Kingdom is currently considering.  

The Investigatory Powers Bill, or IP Bill, was introduced by UK home secretary Theresa May in response to the Edward Snowden claims.  Its aim is to, as the name implies, investigate internet use across the UK and give access to citizen websites records to the police, security services, and other public organizations.  

Obviously, the American tech world has some reservations about that.

American Tech & Europe, At It Again

Governments constantly watching web-users conduct their private business online is not only irksome and borderline creepy to web-users, it’s also bad for business.  The concerns of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo, which can all be read in detail via that hyperlink, surround one primary issue: 

If you spy on people’s Internet usage, they won’t want to use our products. 

“Who’s watching me search for Mr. Fuzzface’s new cat tree??”  
Image from Futurima.

For example, Google is all about cloud networking.  Google Docs, Gmail, and good ol’ Google Search cannot be accessed without an internet connection.  If you knew that your government would be checking your email and peeking at your Google Searches (no matter how innocent they are), you might think twice about jumping into the world wide web at all.

The statement from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo details their primary concerns for the IP Bill, as well as “several important considerations” the companies think the UK government should take.  

Bullet-pointed, they are:
  • The importance of user trust to tech companies, and how constant government surveillance can undermine that trust.
  • The fact that UK legislation will influence other governments across the globe, aka those “far-reaching implications” causing tech giants so much anxiety. 
  • Conflicting legal obligations on an international level.  In other words, globally influential tech companies might have to make different security decisions in different regions of the world, which the written statement deemed an “impossible position” to be in.   

One cannot help be reminded of the European Union’s push to bring the Right to be Forgotten to all Google domains.  As we saw with that slew of news stories, one country was not content with Google treating web-user information differently in another. 

Though not part of this most current rebuttal, Apple has also voiced concerns against the IP Bill.  Their major concern was the protection of user data.  Tim cook said back in November that “if you half or weaken encryption, the people that you hurt are not the folks that want to do bad things.  It’s the good people.  The other people know where to go.”  

Encryption Defined

Encryption is a way to secure data using a password, also called a “key,” created through mathematical algorithms.  Basically, it scrambles your data during transmission and storage so people cannot hack into the info and steal it.  For an in-depth explanation of encryption, head over the Slate for all you need to know about plaintext, keys, ciphertext, and all those other fancy phrases.  

Also, here’s a nice visual example from How-To Geek.

Both Apple and Google have encrypted their latest smartphones by default and President Obama fully supports strong encryption, all in favor of user data protection. 
However, some officials consider encryption too dangerous without the means for governments to bypass it.  The recent ISIS attacks have strengthened the argument against encryption and the dangers of not being able to track the terrorist group’s communications.  

According to Business Insider, the UK government argues the IP Bill is necessary for catching other serious criminals via an internet of “openness, transparency and oversight.”
Why Encrypted Data is Important

Yes, you can argue that Google and Apple and all the rest merely want people to use their products without reservation, but they do argue a fair point in the just protection of everyday users.  Theresa May argues that Britain “isn’t looking to ban encryption,” but the rather vague wording of the bill could force tech companies to weaken encryption and, as a result, endanger the digital economy and the safety of web-users. 

Bringing back the words of Tim Cook, “the bad guys” know how to use “backdoors, forced decryption” and other means of hacking into people’s devices.  Everyday Joes do not.  
In short, the tech world’s concern is that in the opening up of avenues for governments to access information without permission, it also makes way for online criminals to do so, as well.  While that is certainly a concern, and it is widely known that most people do not prefer constant surveillance (especially Americans), do you think that justifies blocking governments completely from viewing user data in the name of finding criminal activity?  

This is only the beginning of the IP Bill discussion, and the debate is sure to go on.

Are you on the side of the UK government or that of U.S. tech companies?  Leave your opinion on internet security and privacy in the comment section below.    

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