Tech companies may be our best hope for resisting government surveillance

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
September 7, 2015

Over the last year, the FBI has had harsh words for Apple, accusing the tech giant of endangering human lives and aiding criminals by turning on encryption by default on the iPhone. When Google announced it would add the feature to Android, meaning that smartphone users would need to unlock their phones for police to be able to go through them, government officials and law enforcement representatives similarly freaked out.

But this move by tech giants to make government surveillance harder reflects public opinion. A significant number of Americans think the government is overreaching: in a recent Pew survey, 65% of respondents said they think the limits on government surveillance are inadequate. Tech companies usually stand accused of violating privacy thanks to business models dependent on amassing and mining data from their millions of users, but Apple and Google are not the only tech companies building features into their products to make it harder for government agencies to do the same.

Both Google and Yahoo have announced that they are working on end-to-end encryption in email. Facebook established its service on a Tor hidden services site, so that users can access the social network without being monitored by those with access to network traffic. Outside of product design, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft have sent their formidable legal teams to court to block or narrow requests for user information. Update: This weekend, the New York Times reported that Apple could not hand over real-time text messages to the Justice Department, despite a court order in a case concerning “guns and drugs,” because of its encryption.

Encryption tools have traditionally been unwieldy and difficult to use; massive companies turning their attention to better and simpler design, and use by default, could be a game changer. Privacy will no longer be accessible only to tech-savvy users, and it will mean that those who douse encryption will no longer stick out like sore thumbs, their rare use of hard-to-use tools making them a target.

There are other avenues protecting privacy as citizens of a constitutional democracy. But in a world where protecting the privacy of our communications, movements and activities is increasingly challenging, our data custodians designing against mass surveillance is the most promising development that we’ve seen.

Read the full piece at Fusion