Sunday, November 20, 2011

Governments can see through the cloud.

The cloud. Surely everyone knows what it is by now (it's when your data--e-mail, documents, spreadsheets--lives in a remote data center rather than on your personal computer). And many of us have e-mail accounts in the cloud. It's nice to be able to access your e-mail and documents from any computer or smartphone, from any location.

But there is a downside. Not surprisingly, it comes from government. Consider this article from Reuters:
"Internet firms co-opted for surveillance: experts" by Georgina Prodhan

The article gets straight to the point:
"Internet companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly co-opted for surveillance work as the information they gather proves irresistible to law enforcement agencies, Web experts said this week."

"Although such companies try to keep their users' information private, their business models depend on exploiting it to sell targeted advertising, and when governments demand they hand it over, they have little choice but to comply."

"'When the possibility exists for information to be obtained that wasn't possible before, it's entirely understandable that law enforcement is interested,' Google's Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf told Reuters in an interview."

"'Every decent-sized U.S. telecoms and Internet company has a team that does nothing but respond to requests for information,' Soghoian told Reuters in an interview."

"While U.S. courts are obliged to publish reports on wire-tapping of telephone lines, no similar information is required to be made public with respect to the Internet -- which grew up after the laws on electronic communications were passed."

"Google does voluntarily publish a transparency report every six months in which it details the number of requests it receives from governments around the world to remove content from its services or hand over user data."

"But the numbers do not reveal how many users are affected by each request -- only trends country by country ("

"Some governments are requiring Internet companies to collect more data and keep it for longer, said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, executive director of Poland's Panoptykon Foundation, which campaigns for human rights in light of modern surveillance."

And here is the real story. Governments that support freedom and privacy will thrive, in my opinion. Governments that don't, won't. There is a tremendous opportunity here for countries to develop thriving information technology sectors, if they want to. For example, if Canada resisted the urge to let governments have this data, if they had strict privacy laws where such information was safe from government, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a thriving data center hub develop in Montreal or Ottawa (just across the border, relatively close to large population centers in the northeastern United States). I know they won't, of course, given how liberal Canada is as a whole. But the opportunity is there. Similar opportunities exist for countries in Europe or Eastern Asia.

And the scary conclusion of the article...

"The ease and cost of surveillance are at an all-time low, Soghoian said, with Google charging an administrative fee of $25 to hand over data, Yahoo charging $20, and Microsoft and Facebook providing data for free."

"'Now, one police officer from the comfort of their desk can track 20, 30, 50 people all through Web interfaces provided by mobile companies and cloud computing companies,' he said."

"'The marginal cost of surveilling one more person is now essentially approaching zero.'"