Still sorting out the post-Snowden balance

The ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI, in which a growing number of companies have declared their own interest and support, is the latest constitutive moment for what it means to live in the “post-Snowden” era. This is because the fight is a direct consequence of changes made by Apple following the Snowden disclosures, and because it is now being used as a way to stabilize some sort of “balance” between government and industry, after the massive shake-up of this relationship in late 2013/early 2014. The shift that occurred included major tech companies treating their own government as an adversary to defend against. Now, Apple has reportedly decided that its own engineers must also be part of this threat model. After Snowden, the company decided that it no longer wanted to be able to unlock phones for the government. Now, the challenge is to develop security that the company cannot even help the government break through some indirect means.

The term “post-Snowden” has gotten a lot of use in the last couple of years, but the Apple-FBI battle demonstrates the real shift to which it refers. Perhaps in a few years, the impact of the Snowden disclosures will be forgotten, in much the same way as the crypto war of the 1990s faded from memory as the relationship between industry and government got cosy after 9/11. But the world did change in a variety of substantial ways as a consequence of Edward Snowden’s actions, and we are still grappling with the legacy of those changes.

The Snowden disclosures were a truly international story with many local manifestations. Just as NSA-affiliated surveillance infrastructure had been extended around the globe, scandal touched the various nations implicated in the documents, and opened the door to local investigations. News stories broke one after another, with governments as either targets or practitioners of surveillance. Canada, as a member of the exclusive “Five Eyes” surveillance club, was reminded that it too had an agency with a mandate similar to the NSA (CSEC, now CSE). More clearly than ever, citizens understood that the surveillance infrastructures of intelligence agencies had global reach. Canada hasn’t seen public battles between government and industry like the one currently involving Apple, and discussions of government surveillance have been more muted than in the US, but a series of Snowden-related stories in this country have also fed into long-standing concerns about surveillance and privacy.

I want to spend more time on how the Snowden disclosures impacted Canada in a later post, but for now I’ll just briefly reflect on my own experiences studying the telecom industry during this period.

I began attending meetings of network operators and engineers in 2012. The first of Snowden’s revelations hit in June 2013, and by the fall of 2013, the topic of state surveillance was a regular part of conference conversations and presentations, if not the actual topic of presentations themselves. At the October 2013 NANOG conference, the internet’s North American engineers cheered the resistance of Snowden’s email provider to disclosure demands by the US government (Ladar Levison had built what was meant to be a secure email provider, but the FBI ordered him to hand over the encryption keys. Attendees applauded his efforts to make the FBI’s job as difficult as possible). At the IETF in Vancouver the following month, participants overwhelmingly voted to treat pervasive surveillance by state intelligence agencies as a technical attack on the internet, and debated how to protect against it. At a Canadian industry conference in April 2014, an executive with an incumbent ISP argued that service providers had an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage by offering better security, and showed a photo of Snowden as an answer to the question of why we care about privacy and security. Interestingly, Canadian government agencies reportedly joined Canadian companies in touting the country’s privacy and security advantages to customers concerned by surveillance in the US.

After Snowden, corporate management and operational decisions took time to shift, but the change in discussions and governance forums was more immediate. It wasn’t just that private intermediaries suddenly had a new threat to worry about, but that the nature of their role, and their relationship to their users/customers had changed. Snowden’s revelations included the fact that the NSA had been undermining the very internet infrastructure that the agency had been tasked with protecting, but also the suggestion that it had done so with intermediaries acting as private partners. Best exemplified by early reports of the PRISM program, some intermediaries were now seen as complicit in this global spying apparatus. As a consequence, companies began limiting cooperation with government agencies and issuing transparency reports about the nature and extent of their information disclosures.

The Snowden disclosures contributed to cynicism and distrust of both government and private industry, and trust is key for companies that have built a business model around securing personal information. Companies such as Apple are positioning themselves as trusted stewards of personal information, with the recognition that customers often do not trust government assurances that they will only access such data in limited and justified circumstances. The most recent moves by Apple are an attempt to move data even further out of the reach of these providers themselves. Such an approach will not be possible for companies that depend on access to this data as part of their business model (for advertising purposes), but for those selling hardware and online services, building walls against governments is now often more desirable than negotiating access.

From one perspective, the Apple-FBI fight is about setting a precedent for government power in the post-Snowden era. But I would say that it is an indicator of a loss of government power, a shift in the orientation of the US tech industry to the state, and one of the continuing consequences of Snowden’s decision to shake up the world.

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