Microsoft acts bullish over NSA reform

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

June 17, 2014

The U.S. government has been adamant in defense of its data collection activities and has pushed back against internet companies attempts to paint it as draconian or worse. The government waited for applause with the passing of the USA Freedom Act. After all, this was to be the bill which would derail some of the NSA’s domestic spying initiatives. Unfortunately, the bill was so diluted right before it passed the House that many of the tech companies dropped their support for the legislation right before its passage. As the bill now heads for the Senate, companies are ramping up efforts to get that body to put some teeth into the legislation.

In that vein, Microsoft is stepping up its campaign to get the NSA to reform its surveillance practices. That it coincides with the one-year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s revelations is no accident. The NSA’s PRISM program has been sticking in the craw of the tech companies and the privacy loving public for too long. Their pleas for changes to the system of bulk data gathering and how the responses are reported is at the heart of the most recent effort by Microsoft to get the agency to reform its practices.

In a blog post from its general counsel, Brad Smith, he points out that the parties have “unfinished business” and warned that the government backed activities are undermining and destabilizing the IT industry. He characterized the atmosphere as one which has created a “technology trust deficit.”

“We learned that the government was not just seeking a relatively small amount of content from internet companies via legal orders. It’s now apparent that the government intercepted data in transit across the internet and hacked links between company data centers. These disclosures have rightly prompted a vigorous debate over the scope of government surveillance, leading to some positive changes. But much more needs to be done.”

We reported in recent blogs how the tech giants have already wound down their pliant, cooperative behaviour with law enforcement agencies. One thing that Smith suggests is that the NSA stop leaning on tech companies at home and abroad. “We need to strike a better balance between privacy and national security to restore trust and uphold our fundamental liberties,” he said.

The industry leaders are not relying on just rhetoric to address the problem. Some are taking new steps to regain and hold the technological advantage. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo have joined with Microsoft in encrypting more data as it moves along its servers and helping customers encode their own emails. Their so-called Perfect Forward Secrecy is specifically designed to make it more labor intensive for the NSA to read encrypted communications. Microsoft is now fully encrypting all its products including Hotmail and By year’s end it will have used 2,048-bit encryption to strengthen its infrastructure which would take the government far longer to crack. Google is going so far as to lay its own fiber-optic cable under the world’s oceans to assure that the company will have more control over the movement of its customer data.

The government’s reaction has been predictable, falling back on the national security theme and typical scare tactics. Robert S. Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 17 American spy agencies, said last week that it was “an unquestionable loss for our nation that companies are losing the willingness to cooperate legally and voluntarily” with American spy agencies. And he naturally predicted that “sooner or later there will be some intelligence failure and people will wonder why the intelligence agencies were not able to protect the nation.”

The industry response is that if that happens, it will be the government’s own fault. For in their quest for broad data collection, they have undermined internet security for all.

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