This fall, in the first installment of our Prison Profiteers video series with the ACLU and Beyond Bars, Nation readers were introduced to Kenny, a 9-year-old boy and one of 2.7 million children across the country with a parent behind bars. In the video, Kenny’s mother explains the difficulty of keeping in touch with her son’s father; his prison is a four-hour drive away and phone calls are expensive. Global Tel* Link, the phone company the family must work with if they want to keep in touch, charges up to $1.13 cents per minute—that’s $17 for a fifteen minute phone call.
In response to the video, Nation readers joined us to demand action. The Federal Communications Commission had already capped the amount of money prison phone companies could charge for state-to-state calls in August but, since most prisoners serve time in their home state, the decision left many behind. Along with our partners on Prison Profiteers, we created a petition to demand that the FCC finish the job and end this predatory practice for all prison phone calls. Over 28,000 people have joined the campaign so far. We hope to reach at least 30,000 by this Thursday, when we deliver our petition to the FCC.
There’s a real chance we could win this fight. When the FCC capped rates for state-to-state phone calls, they asked specifically for comments on whether they should do the same for in-state calls. Plus, we’re not the only people passionate about reining in this abuse. The delivery this Thursday follows a similar petition by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a coalition of groups dedicated to fighting the profitable prison phone industry.
If you haven’t already, take a minute to watch the video and join our campaign. Together we can put an end to this unjust and exploitative practice.
It is not a question even of the ignorance of white people. It is a question of the fears of white people.
Perhaps the most trivial news story, in recent memory, to make the rounds of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is most certainly the “debate” over whether or not Santa Claus is white. It started with a seemingly benign request from Slate’s Aisha Harris that Santa be de-racialized. Harris had a modest proposal: rather than a jolly old white man, how about turning our image of Santa into a penguin? No race, they’re cute and he’d still live in a snowy place. This deeply offended FOX News’s Megyn Kelly, whose unwavering belief that Santa—and Jesus—are white set off Twitter, the blogosphere and would-be pundits everywhere.
I honestly do not care about Santa’s racial identity. He’s a mythical figure with flying reindeer and elves. To the point of Harris’s original article, he can literally be whatever we decide. Growing up, my mother did all the Christmas shopping in my household, so for me Santa has always been a black woman. It’s not a big deal.
But what this whole controversy has revealed is another instance of white racial panic. For the entirety of the United States’s history, white people have had the advantage of defining themselves—and their mythical gift-giving icons—in a white supremacist state. Politically, culturally, economically, socially, everything has been tailored to privilege whiteness. But things change. Whiteness as the default identity to which everything else is derived or compared gets challenged. And the pushback is fierce.
We are living in an age of paradox. The old system of white racial supremacy is very much still alive and strong, but the advancements of other racial groups are undeniable. That means the government, the culture, the economy and the social order, while not even close to anything equitable, are changing and shifting towards something that’s at least more inclusive. Most of these changes are superficial and have no material benefit for the people on the bottom rungs of society. (As I wrote in June, when it was reported that there had been more white deaths than births in 2012, it’s not about demographics, it’s a matter of resources/wealth/power.) But they can give us hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
The result is fear. Fear that too much change coming too fast will change the current system in a way that will no longer privilege whiteness. Being white will no longer be special. It will not allow you to define yourself against the other. There will be no power or privilege. You will just be.
We saw it in immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. It animates our debate around immigration reform. It drives our fear of China emerging as a superpower. And yes, it’s even in the desire to affirm Santa’s white identity. The visual markers of white supremacy appear to be eroding, and for certain segments of the population, that’s a frightening prospect.
Of course, white people have nothing to fear. Not in the immediate future, at least. Just as the rich have nothing to fear, men have nothing to fear and heterosexuals have nothing to fear. The system of white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy isn’t going anywhere for a while. It is so entrenched in our way of thinking that even those who don’t benefit from it work towards its maintenance. We still have a long way to go.
Santa Claus is merely a symbol. We project upon him what we wish to see. So don’t worry, white people. With the political and economic advantages still heavily weighted in your favor, Santa will still bring you your gifts. He’s still on your side. In the foreseeable future, Santa is still a white man.
(But it won’t always be that way.)
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on Beyoncé’s feminism.
The serial failures of Chicago’s new “smart card” public transportation fare collection system isn’t really a Chicago story—any more than the dark, satanic mills of nineteenth-century England were a Manchester story, or impoverished temp workers risking life and limb packaging iPads is a story about California’s Inland Empire. This is a tale about the world taking shape before us now, everywhere: public provision being turned over to private interests, subverting democracy and all economic good sense in the (terrible) bargain.
RFID fare-collection systems implemented by the San Diego–based defense contractor Cubic have caused public outcry wherever they’ve been introduced, across all four corners of the globe. London is Cubic’s biggest customer, accounting for 33 percent of their transportation business. There, “Oyster” smart cards were introduced in 2003 via what is known in England as a Private Finance Initiative. The parties were a consortium including Cubic and EDS (formerly Electronic Data Systems, a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard), and London’s transport agency TfL; the seventeen-year contract, signed in 1998, was worth £1.1 billion. The system began with a modest range of features and slowly expanded; but according to Wikipedia, in “August 2008, TfL decided to exercise a break option in the contract to terminate it in 2010, five years early, this followed a number of technical failures.” And yet a subsequent contract with Cubic lasting through 2015 was inked nonetheless.
And the failures went on.
There were 190,0000 complaints about overcharging in 2008 (only 46 percent of complainants had their money refunded)—with the pace accelerating month by month. In 2010, with Londoners still baffled by a confusing system that required them to “tap out” their cards upon leaving a station lest they get hit by the maximum fare, TfL responded by blaming the customers. The next year, the maximum fare was increased; overcharges thus added £61.8 million to the consortium’s coffers. This year, a transportation watchdog group reported that of the Oyster machines “almost no one they interviewed understood how they worked.” The Guardian reported that authorities knew the system was overcharging some users. The paper continued, “Transport for London (TfL) has been made aware of the glitch but is not going to fix it until September at the earliest—because it only updates the Oyster system three times a year.” One of the most embarrassing problems in Chicago—machines charging the wrong customer card—is rampant in London, according to a report in the excellent local Chicago news site Gapers Block. Another system glitch reported by Gapers Block was that vendors were able to receive money from customers, then void the transaction and still keep the cash. Meanwhile customers are owed some £53 million in unclaimed refunds; but there is “no easy way to reclaim the funds.”
The system is up for rebid in 2015. Trouble for Cubic stockholders, right? Not so much. Observed a Credit Suisse equity report, “it is a longstanding relationship that is likely to be renewed.” Nice work if you can get it.
You could enjoy a nice around-the-world tour just traveling to cities where Cubic has screwed up fare collection. Gapers Block documented them: double-charging in Atlanta. Twenty-fold charging in Brisbane, Australia. Miami-Dade’s “Easy Card” system was dubbed “Easy Fraud”: this fall, “a 22-year-old man has stood trial over a a glitch allowing him (and members of a WSVN Channel 7 News team) to load money onto Easy Cards for free.” In San Francisco, “Cubic disclosed it received 38,000 customer service phone calls in August 2011.”
And then Los Angeles: in spite of “nearly consistent one-star reviews on Yelp, Cubic still got a six-year, $545 million contract extension.”
None of this bothered the city fathers of Vancouver, British Columbia, apparently. Their Cubic-built system “Compass” comes fully online this January. A large-scale Beta test, though, has already enraged citizens who realized that buying a fare through the traditional system, which will continue on buses, forced you to pay twice when transferring to trains, which only accept the new cards.
And so Cubic continues to thrive and grow, much to Wall Street’s delight. Wrote security analysts of Cubic’s military subsidiary, “2013 is likely to be a year of flattish revenue and lower earnings owing to tight defense budgets.” But “[t]here is no pure-play publicly traded fare-collection competitors,” so “[w]e see a solid growth story/existing backlog in Transportation,and believe that CUB’s efforts to expand its addressable market…. Scope for smart card penetration in existing U.S. transit systems is another growth lever.”
Let’s pause and reflect on what’s going on here.
“Privatization” isn’t new in Chicago’s fare-collection system; indeed the two components of the system being replaced, semi-smart preloaded “Chicago Cards” and dumb old magnetic-strip cards, were also devised under contract to Cubic. What we now see in Chicago, however, is an intensification of the logic of privatization. A publicly traded company succeeds—attracts more investors—only if it grows. The equity reports from the investment banks are telling in their ruthless focus on this fact: “flattish” grown is veritable death. It is not enough to “saturate” an old market. It is instead crucial to devise new ones—even if the old products don’t need fixing.
That is one of the reasons turning over public municipal services to private interests is so dangerous: the exploitative logic of planned obsolescence. The watchword: If it’s not broke—fix it! Or, as we’ve seen, don’t fix it. Just change it, even if what replaces it is worse.
What does it mean when a new product that fails and fails and fails, frustrating customers everywhere, continues to enjoy sales growth? It means that the customer isn’t actually the customer. The politicians are the customers. And they’re plainly getting something out of the deal whether Joe Public gets double-charged for a ride downtown on the No. 6 route or not. Consider: one of Cubic’s biggest institutional owners is Blackrock, the biggest investment fund in the world; and Blackrock’s CEO gave $25,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, then enjoyed a rare half-hour sit-down with him. Was transit fares one of the things they talked about? Wouldn’t it be nice to know.
Another danger is that private companies see the Internal Revenue System as a machine to repurpose our cash into their pockets. Reported Cubic to investors after the 2012 transportation bill was signed into law, “of significance to Cubic Transportation Systems in that all of our transit agency customers in the United States currently receive federal funding, and this bill will continue to provide them with the funding that they need to start new projects themselves as well as any prospective clients who may have needed funding.” Tellingly, you see no talk here of efficiency, or cost-savings, or market-enforced accountability, all those boons privatization is supposed to deliver to citizens. It’s just—here’s a new revenue stream. It’s just—time to call up “prospective clients.”
There is no market-enforced accountability here. How could there be, when the contracts last ten years and are all-but-automatically renewed, due to (telling language!) “longstanding relationship[s]”? How could there be “competition” when the assets in question are natural monopolies? (What’s a competitor supposed to do, build their own subway routes?) And yet, maddeningly, the fallacy of the “efficient” private sector endures—helped along by those who ought to know better. Like when President Obama promised to bring healthcare.gov up to the standard of “private sector velocity and effectiveness.”
Somehow, failures in the public sector are always judged as systematic. The private sector thus exists to ride to the rescue—and their failures are only judged anomalies. A pretty nice arrangement for investors. The only people who suffer are the citizens. As Credit Suisse reports, “90%+ off Cubic’s cash on the balance sheet is held offshore.”
So that’s how it works: we shovel them boatloads of money. They stick us with substandard products. We fuss and holler, to no avail. Then they shelter the money they’ve just Hoovered from our pockets in offshore accounts. Maybe it’s time for activists in Chicago, Vancouver, Atlanta, Miami, Brisbane and London to get together, raise their collective voices and demand some of that money back.
Read next: Rick Perlstein on this phenomenon in Chicago
It’s been another wild twenty-four hours in the NSA/Snowden epic story-of-the-year.
Just hours after 60 Minutes aired its whitewash of the NSA—Valentine’s Day coming early for the snoopers—a federal district judge ruled that the massive (and purportedly harmless) data collection on Americans by the NSA is probably unconstitutional. This inspired another CNN debate last night about what Edward Snowden has wrought between Glenn Greenwald and Jeffrey Toobin, this time on Anderson Cooper’s show.
Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, still thinks Snowden should be arrested and should have gone through channels. Toobin contends that the judge’s ruling doesn’t “vindicate” Snowden, since it’s just one judge. And the whistleblower “should have gone through” Congress or something—it was “untenable” to leak to a Greenwald etc. (Senator Ron Wyden backs the judge here.)
This morning, seemingly unrelated to that, Snowden posted an open letter to Brazilians, offering to help them expose wrongful spying within their borders. Some took this to be plea for asylum, which Greenwald denies. When CNN posted a story about the open letter it tweeted the link with this message: “Edward Snowden offers to spy on the US & help Brazil investigate NSA surveillance.”
After criticism from others on Twitter—Greenwald wrote, “Dear CNN: even for you, this is so remarkably reckless and false that it’s shocking”—CNN quickly deleted the tweet and changed it to: “
#NSA leaker Edward Snowden is offering to help investigate U.S. surveillance of Brazilian citizens.”
Naturally, a screen grab of the original was uncovered and posted. So I guess I should close with: watch this space for updates.
Read next: Zoë Carpenter on Internet surveillance and the government.
Thanks to Congress, it’s shaping up to be a bleak holiday season for at least one group of Americans. Because the House of Representatives failed to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program before they left for vacation, 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans stand to lose their unemployment benefits just three days after Christmas.
Advocates for the unemployed are calling on Congress to extend the EUC when they return from holiday break, and to make the extension retroactive. In the meantime, states have told recipients to continue to file claims after benefits are cut off on December 28, in case Congress does pass the extension.
Join The Nation and Daily Kos in calling on Congress to salvage the benefits of those who need them the most. Contact your representative now and tell them to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.
The House Ways and Means Committee published an interactive map that breaks down the number of unemployed Americans affected in each state.
At MSNBC, Craig Melvin spoke with LaShean Daniels-Palmer, a mother of four who relies on unemployment benefits.
The National Security Agency (NSA) and its high-tech spying cohorts have been slammed by a federal judge and, if a report in Politico is to be believed, the presidential commission set up earlier this year by President Obama, after the barrage of leaks from Edward Snowden, is going to be a “doozy” that rocks the NSA.
But it remains to be seen if Obama will carry out all, or any, of his own commission’s recommendations. The commission delivered its still-secret report to the White House last Friday.
We’ll get to the judge’s ruling in a second, but first, the report in Politico by intelligence writer Matthew M. Aid, who writes that although the Review Group won’t please many civil libertarians since it endorses some of the more controversial parts of the NSA’s work, it also won’t please the NSA one bit:
The Review Group’s preliminary findings and recommendations are anything but cosmetic. The still-classified report of the five-person panel, whose official moniker is the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, recommends sweeping and far-reaching changes in the way the NSA conducts its electronic surveillance operations, from a greater degree of executive-branch oversight of the agency’s operations to the imposition of new limits on what data it can collect, especially inside the United States—a move almost certain to anger the NSA and its supporters inside the U.S. intelligence community.
Politico adds, “U.S. intelligence officials I spoke with were clearly shocked by the Review Group’s recommendations, with one official admitting that he felt ‘slobbernockered’ by some of the things the panel was reportedly recommending.”
I’m not sure what “slobbernockered” means, but it doesn’t sound good if you’re the NSA.
Politico’s Aid quotes a Review Group staffer thus:
We had to go this route. If we did not recommend placing some additional controls and checks and balances on the NSA’s operations, the high-tech companies were going to kill us and Congress was going to burn the house down.
Now to the judge. As The Washington Post reports it, “A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency’s daily collection of virtually all Americans’ phone records is almost certainly unconstitutional.”
Although the judge, Richard J. Leon, stayed his decision for six months to give the feds time to appeal, and although this lower court ruling is just the first trip on a path that will ultimately lead to the Supreme Court, it’s a major blow to the NSA. Leon’s ruling, sixty-eight pages long, contains scathing denunciations of the NSA’s spying and data collection overreach.
In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal expresses frantic alarm over the coming report by Obama’s Review Group, saying,
But the word on Capitol Hill is that the scope and radicalism of the recommendations stunned even this White House, not least because the task force was stacked with Obama loyalists. If the details are anything like the leaks, then the panel is advising the government to seriously degrade U.S. counterterror defenses and shut down several valuable surveillance assets in a dangerous world.
And the Journal goes on to link the report with Judge Leon’s decision and political opponents of the NSA:
The report lands at a bad political moment, with tea party Republicans and anti-antiterror Democrats smelling opportunity and sociopaths with stolen documents campaigning to harm U.S. national security. Federal Judge Richard Leon ruled Monday that phone metadata collection is unconstitutional, part of a larger post-Snowden legal assault.
We can only hope.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on why IT companies oppose government surveillance.
I have received a great deal of thoughtful feedback on my article listing alternatives to Sports Illustrated’s coma-inducing choice of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as their Sportsperson of the Year. I believe that in Sports Illustrated’s best tradition, the Sportsperson of the Year should be someone who personifies the most important, evocative stories of the year. Following some terrific feedback from readers, I now have three more people to add to my list.
1—Neymar. The live-wire Brazilian soccer star spent the past year reviving the “The Beautiful Game,” leading many experts to believe that Brazil could be the home favorite when hosting the World Cup this summer. Yet Neymar in 2013 proved he was more than an athletes. Unlike Brazilian soccer legends Pele and Ronaldo, Neymar backed last summer’s mass protests against the gross waste and negligence connected to the government’s stadium and infrastructure spending for the World Cup. As Neymar wrote, “I’ve always had faith that it wouldn’t be necessary to get to this point, of having to take over the streets, to demand for better transportation, health, education and safety—these are all government’s obligations. My parents worked really hard to offer me and my sister a good quality life. Today, thanks to the success that fans have afforded me, it might seem like a lot of demagogy from me—but it isn’t—raising the flag of the protests that are happening in Brazil. But I am Brazilian and I love my country. I have family and friends who live in Brazil! That’s why I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest! The only way I have to represent Brazil is on the pitch, playing football and, starting today against Mexico, I’ll get on the pitch inspired by this mobilisation.”
Sure enough, he then starred in Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory over Mexico.
2—Brandon Marshall. In 2013, the Pro Bowl Chicago Bears wide receiver pulled off what may be an unprecedented act in sports history: traveling politically from someone who could be understandably seen as part of the problem in sports, to becoming somone who is unquestionably part of the solution. Early in his career, Marshall was arrested on drunk driving and domestic violence charges. Instead of continuing to spiral downward, Marshall sought counseling and has been open and honest about his own mental health problems. Amidst the NFL’s bullying scandal in Miami, Marshall was one of the most cogent and intelligent speakers about the toxicity inherent in the concepts of “manhood” in football.
He said, “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that your hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets.”
3—Katie Hnida. One of the most important and disturbing sports stories of 2013 was the ways in which jock culture and rape culture seemed to be inextricably bound. From Steubenville, to Torrington, to Maryville, to Vanderbilt University, to the treatment of Jameis Winston’s accuser in Tallahassee, there were a shocking number of stories in the sports pages about rape and the ways in which the reverence for young athletes created a culture of cover-ups. Katie Hnida was uniquely situated to discuss this and did not shirk from the task. Hnida was first woman to play professional arena football with the Ft. Wayne Firehawks in 2010 and also became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A game, with New Mexico. In 2004, Hnida also told Sports Illustrated that as a member of the Colorado Buffaloes, she was raped by members of the football team. She was condemned for coming forward and no charges for filed. One would more than understand if Katie Hnida never wanted to discuss the ways in which jock culture and rape culture intersected. Instead, she was a nuanced and important voice throughout the year. In my own interview with Hnida, she said, “I know that jock culture does not have to produce sexual assault because at New Mexico we were a family so I have seen how sports can be a force for good.” She has also said with razor-sharp clarity, “We all have the right to autonomy over our own bodies…I’m happy to be able to say I survived sexual violence.”
Thank you, Neymar. Thank you, Brandon Marshall. Thank you, Katie Hnida. You were all a part of turning a very somber 2013 sports year into one with highlights of hope and inspiration
Read next: Dave Zirin’s thoughts on Peyton Manning as Sports Illustrated person of the year for 2013.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
As a novelist once put it, President Calvin Coolidge “aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained his desire.” Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to negotiate what may be considered “the least” budget the House has ever passed.
Yet ever since the deal was announced, Washington has been patting itself on the back for the deal, which—at least temporarily—halts a two-year war waged by GOP obstructionists that has paralyzed, and even shut down, the government. President Obama, even while acknowledging the deal’s shortcomings, said that its mere existence was “a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done.” The Economist put it more plainly: “What is in the deal . . . is perhaps less important than the fact that there is one.”
Yet this excessive affection for dealmaking—any deal at all—obscures the truth: Simply doing something doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right thing.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Eight prominent Internet technology companies unveiled an open letter last week calling for reforms to the government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual—rights that are enshrined in our constitution,” reads the letter, published on a website that lays out five principles for reform, including greater oversight and transparency, as well as an end to bulk data collection.
Executives from seven of the firms will meet with President Obama on Tuesday, in the shadow of a federal judge’s ruling that the collection of domestic phone records is "almost certainly" unconstitutional. The opinion from US District Judge Richard Leon reinforces the impression that NSA overreach constitutes a primary threat to privacy and civil liberty. But some privacy advocates caution that even if the NSA’s programs are scaled back, surveillance infrastructure will persist in the private sector—thanks to the same companies now calling for reform, whose business models depend on the collection and sale of vast quantities of personal information.
“It’s one-stop shopping for the NSA,” warned Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer privacy advocacy group. “What they’ve done is create a global commercial surveillance system that is engaged in the same kind of pervasive tracking and analysis [as the NSA].”
The engagement of IT companies in the debate about the state’s surveillance powers seems like a clear win for reformers. Though they lack detail, the firms’ principles align with many of the changes called for by privacy advocates. This is the first time that the tech giants—including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Apple—have made a joint political statement, and the move is well-timed: early in the new year Congress will weigh competing legislation with the potential to roll-back some of the NSA’s overreach, or enshrine data collection programs in law. With a combined value of $1.4 trillion and a growing lobbying presence in Washington, these companies wield considerable influence.
“We’re happy to have them in this fight,” said Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Of course the real question is the next step—whether they are willing to put lobbying muscle behind it.”
Another question is how far the interests of the Internet giants really overlap with the concerns of civil libertarians. Nowhere in their calls for reform do the IT companies address the privacy implications of selling troves of personal information collected from millions of Americans to online advertisers. Substantial investment and innovation in data collection by the private sector has enriched shareholders, and enabled the government’s spying programs.
“The accumulation of corporate power in terms of having these very powerful dossiers of every individual, their networks and locations, gives them tremendous influence over our lives. These corporations have agendas as well,” said Chester.
This agenda—in short, to convert users into a source of profit—is less sinister at face value than the prospect that the NSA’s surveillance programs will ossify into the architecture of a police state. Unlike government spying, data collection and tracking by the private sector is largely opt-in: no one forces us to click “agree” at the end of a long and opaque user agreement. And the risks of sharing personal information seem low; Facebook will not haul you off to jail because of who your friends are.
But the national security apparatus is deeply entangled with Silicon Valley, as the Snowden revelations have illustrated. In early December, The Washington Post reported that the NSA is “piggybacking” on the tracking tools that allow advertisers to follow and target users, “using ‘cookies’ and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.” Google’s PREF cookies are particularly useful to the NSA, according to the Post, and it isn’t clear to what extent the company cooperates with the agency.
The Snowden disclosures revealed that many Internet and telecom companies have both complied with the agency’s requests for data and been unwitting prey for back-door data collection. Several IT firms have asked the government for authorization to share information about the requests for data they receive, and the open letter assures consumers the companies are “deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks.” (Other companies implicated by the Snowden leaks, notably Verizon and AT&T, have not indicated any willingness to be more open about their relationship with the NSA.)
When it comes to its own practices, however, the IT industry has a record of fighting consumer protections. Silicon Valley has lobbied aggressively against legislation in Europe that would help users evade online tracking and targeted advertising. Google has paid more than one multi-million dollar settlement for evading privacy protections built into the Internet browser Safari, and a related lawsuit is pending in the United Kingdom. It appears that, as Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU tweeted last week, Google and other companies “just want to be the exclusive spying source for their customers’ data.”
While the open letter pays lip service to civil liberties, the real concern it expresses isn’t for the rights of the people per se, but for consumer confidence—read, the companies’ bottom line. “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wrote on the new website. Microsoft’s Brad Smith put it more bluntly: “People won’t use technology they don’t trust.” One analyst predicts that Internet companies will lose as much at $180 billion by 2016 because of the damage done to their reputations by the leaks.
That message may have more resonance with lawmakers than concerns about individual rights. The national security apparatus has a compelling interest in maintaining the dominance of US Internet companies, as Marcy Wheeler points out. “Our stewardship of the Internet is not just one of the few bright spots in our economy, but also a keystone to our power internationally. And it gives us huge spying advantages,” she writes.
How the government will reconcile its competing interests in extensive spying and in maintaining the dominance of America’s Internet services industry is an interesting question. At this point it looks likely that any voluntary changes will be cosmetic, designed to appease angry foreign leaders and reassure Internet users. Even strong checks from the legislative branch now cannot guarantee a permanent firewall between private data pools and the government; Intelligence agencies and administration officials have repeatedly demonstrated their aptitude for contorting the law to fit their designs.
Still, some of the reforms in play in Congress and addressed by the IT giants, particularly those related to transparency, could allow for a more thorough examination of the relationship between the private sector and government surveillance programs.
“We’re not going to stop the collection of data because our digital behaviors have transformed how we live our lives,” said Chester. “There’s no way to dismantle this system. However, we can create some limits. What’s needed are rights for consumers.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the court ruling against the NSA.