Are Governments Moving In On Big Tech?

What happens when governments & technology companies conflict?

A main obstacle to government efficiency is a lack of appropriate technology, and a main obstacle to technological advancement is a lack of government support. So, when governments and tech companies cooperate, everybody wins. Of course, it’s not always that simple, and sometimes the relationship is far from harmonious.

At a hearing in July, a panel of US intelligence and law enforcement officials stated that they could ‘direct’ tech companies to provide information and assistance. . . and if the company refused, they could be made to comply under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This ability to make tech companies the puppets of government is undoubtedly unsettling. How much power should officials really be entitled to?

Privacy versus security

Information and assistance can mean a lot of different things, but regardless of what they are, the US government can get them. Under US law, intelligence agencies are within their legal rights to ask companies to carry out technical services and force them to comply via an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). So far, the FISC has not been called to enforce any ‘request’, but whether they have been made is another matter.

The US, it would seem, has a lot of power over the tech community which is not mirrored elsewhere in the world. In September, WhatsApp reportedly refused to build an encryption backdoor for the UK government because it compromised the privacy of their users. The Australian government has also been pushing for access to secret messages sent via encryption, but has yet to reveal how this can work without compromising wider security. It looks like the US government in particular has got into a bad habit of asking forgiveness instead of permission. Other countries, for a number of different reasons, seem to want to do the same. But section 702, the keystone of federal power over technological corporations, is about to expire.

Life after section 702

Worried that section 702 is unlikely to be reinstated after it expires at the end of December, the US government is now pushing to extend it through to April next year. The governing powers of other countries are also taking a head on approach to getting what they want from tech firms. In many ways this is a good thing, checking and regulating the actions of companies. Recent attitudes have become more aggressive, however, and this has a number of implications for businesses. Enabling government access to secure systems and databases could make them more vulnerable, which could affect the integrity of the business as well as customer privacy.

Tech companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side, they have to meet official requirements and follow the law. On the other, they have their own and their customers’ interests to think about. For example, removing end to end encryption wouldn’t just give governing bodies the chance to check the nature of content to improve security – it would open up personal messages, photos, videos, documents and calls to organisations that wanted to do quite the opposite. This puts tech companies in a very difficult position which could see them banding together to send a message to intrusive governments. If governments push for unreasonable levels of access, businesses may be forced into legal battles to establish where to draw the line.

While government pressure on tech companies may well be due to security concerns, the relationship between official bodies and big businesses can be difficult. The likes of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) are huge companies with real power, so it’s not difficult to imagine that politicians view them as a threat. The initial stages of Trump’s presidency demonstrated this very clearly, despite concerted efforts to improve the situation later down the line. For the most part, it seems businesses are expected to accept that government involvement is unavoidable. However, if official requests seriously compromise the security of systems and customer privacy, technology companies will need to decide when enough is enough.

Should governments be able to carry out ‘warrantless surveillance programmes’? Do technology companies have the power to challenge government intrusion? Is it worth giving up our privacy for hopes of improved security? Share your thoughts and opinions.