The US Government’s secretive mass data collection could kill “golden goose” exports by US web companies, according to a Google engineer.
Dr Joseph Bonneau, a Google engineer, says the National Security Agency (NSA) should be “abolished” in its current form. Shortly after meeting NSA engineers to receive an award for his analysis of 70 million anonymised Yahoo passwords, Bonneau posted a blog outlining his “conflicted feelings” about the acknowledgement.
“In accepting the award I don’t condone the NSA’s surveillance. Simply put, I don’t think a free society is compatible with an organisation like the NSA in its current form,” wrote Bonneau. “Yet I’m glad I got the rare opportunity to visit with the NSA and I’m grateful for my hosts’ genuine hospitality.”
Bonneau’s paper was based on analysis of 70 million Yahoo passwords, which looked at demographic and account data to see patterns in password choice and how strong they were against online and offline dictionary attacks.
Noting that the NSA engineers he met “understood and cared about the privacy implications of studying password data”, Bonneau placed blame for the NSA’s surveillance with politicians in Washington and not Fort Meade, the location of the NSA’s facilities.
The NSA’s surveillance activities abroad and in the US were made public through a series of leaks to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has requested temporary asylum in Russia and currently faces prosecution in the US, though apparently not charges that could result in the death penalty.
In a debate on Twitter, Bonneau clarified he was not defending the NSA and stated “I want [the NSA] abolished”.
However, he still held out hope that the NSA or a similar organisation could still function if Washington supported reforming it to become “something that’s more reasonable”, he later told <i>Animal New York</i>.
Bonneau went on to say that he “wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reforming the current NSA to a better place… [and] our core problems are political and much bigger than the NSA.”
The Googler later on Saturday conducted an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) interview on Reddit commenting that the NSA was “full of decent people” who followed rules but nonetheless could damage business opportunities abroad for the nation’s web companies.
“I think the main changes that need to happen are political, and changing FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts, and probably replacing some of the NSA leadership, but I can respect most of the people working at the NSA.”
According to Bonneau, the “biggest worry” is the lack of transparency on what is being collected, how long it’s being stored and what limitations there are on its use.
His second major concern affects Google directly and echoes concerns that the businesses and consumers in non-US countries, particularly in Europe, may turn away from US companies in light of the surveillance program.
“We'll kill the golden goose if other countries think US corporations can't be trusted with their data due to the local government, particularly when the law provides virtually no protection from eavesdropping for foreigner's data held by US companies,” wrote Bonneau.
“Can we honestly tell people in other countries that they should trust all of their data with US companies?”