Talking tech since 2003

The fallout from this summer’s revelations regarding the NSA’s PRISM and MUSCULAR surveillance programs continues with no signs of stopping. Today, news broke that government agents were so eager to find bad guys online that they spent years trying to infiltrate online gaming communities like World of Warcraft and Second Life—with little in the way of results from those efforts. In response to the public outcry, tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and more, have penned an open letter to the President Barack Obama and the members of the United States Congress to seek reform regarding surveillance.

While I have my doubts that this is more than a PR move, I do think this letter has a better chance of eliciting change than any letter me and my friends might write.

The letter, posted on Microsoft’s site, doesn’t say much that hasn’t been said before: “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. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”

Agreed. The letter also includes quotes from the various top people from all the tech companies affixing their brands to the note—Google’s Larry Page, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, among others. As far as a fix on the companies’ sides, though, there is a little progress in that arena. Last week, Microsoft announced its efforts to expand and bolster its encryption of user data, ranging from Outlook to Office 365, to SkyDrive. Moreover, the company says it’s “reinforcing legal protections” and “increasing transparency,” all in an attempt to reassure customers that it’ll be able to make it more difficult for snoops to access their data.

And that’s all nice, and if it’s all true, it should provide some small bit of comfort. But from what we’re discovering as more details about the NSA’s programs come out, there isn’t much that anyone really can do to put a stop to governments behaving badly. The exception, of course, are those who are actually involved in surveillance programs who decide that what’s happening might not be for the public good. Public opinion on Edward Snowden is pretty well split between traitor and folk hero, but at the end of the day, I hope that America’s better off knowing what its government is doing with its data networks than not. The next step is finding a way for that government to use its power responsibly, and to respect the rights of its citizens in actions as well as words.

Until we know how to get that done, maybe stick to keeping your important files and communications in a shoebox under your bed. I’m pretty sure no one’s got cameras in my shoebox.

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