Internet Giants Enlisted for Government Surveillance

Monday, October 03, 2011

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Just what are all of those giant Internet-based companies doing with all of the data they collect on Web users? 

According to some experts, they are freely sharing the information with government entities, and perhaps even collecting additional information solely for surveillance purposes.

"Government agencies throughout the world are pushing companies to collect even more data than is needed for their business purposes. For example, we have a very controversial data retention regime which is currently under review. This requires people to store data for a period up to two years so it can easily be accessed by law enforcement agencies," said the executive director of Poland's Panoptykon Foundation, Katarzyna Szymielewicz.

While Microsoft and Facebook are known to provide the data to government and law enforcement agencies for free, Google seeks a $25 handling charge and Yahoo puts the price on providing user information at $20, according to the Reuters report.

In comparison to traditional law enforcement monitoring techniques, this makes tracking a large number of people not only possible, by economical for authorities. Basically, surveillance has never been easier.

"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. The marginal cost of surveilling one more person is now essentially approaching zero,"  said privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian.

The question is how freely these companies should be sharing your information with authorities, and under what circumstances - such as when there has been no court oversight such as is required for a search warrant.

"When the possibility exists for information to be obtained that wasn't possible before, it's entirely understandable that law enforcement is interested. Then the issue would be, what's the right policy? And that, or course, engenders a lot of debate," said Google's Internet evangelist Vint Cerf in a Reuters interview.

The number of requests for data has been steadily increasing, requiring companies to dedicate significant resources to manage the requests, and hence the fees charged by some.

"Every decent-sized U.S. telecoms and Internet company has a team that does nothing but respond to requests for information," Soghoian said.

And it is not just cooperation with Western governments that has experts concerned.

SecDev Group, an international security think tank based in Canada, recently released a report that examines the ethics surrounding western technology corporations apparent collusion with the Chinese government's oppressive censorship and unmitigated domestic surveillance operations.

The report, titled Collusion and Collision: Searching for Guidance in Chinese cyberspace, focuses on the relationship between the totalitarian Chinese regime and western-based search engine giants such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft’s Bing - which account for a 94% of the worlds search engine market share.

The crux of the issue is whether or not these companies who are eager to exploit the vast and rapidly developing Chinese online marketplace should so easily concede to the Chinese government's demands to adhere to strict censorship and monitoring requirements which are fundamentally in opposition to western democratic values and in most cases the companies' very own policies and mission statements.

The Washington Post noted that in 2005 Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government demand to provide private email correspondence data belonging to active political dissidents, including the outspoken poet Shi Tao, who was subsequently jailed.

While Yahoo! later apologized and sold off the controlling share of their operations in China, the damage had been done, and the motivations were purely profit driven.They also point out that Microsoft similarly has provided information and also voluntarily pulled the plug on reporter Zhao Jing's website at the behest of the Chinese government.

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