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Did Silicon Valley Help The NSA Spy?

Dec 3, 2013
Originally published on December 3, 2013 1:19 pm

Georgetown University professor Abraham Newman argues that business practices at the big technology companies have helped the National Security Agency gather consumers’ personal data in the U.S. and abroad.

Technology companies have reacted sharply to revelations of N.S.A. spying on their customers’ data. Google said, “We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform.”

The company says it has ramped up encryption programs to protect data from both hackers and from spies.

“These tech companies have spent the last 20 years pushing for self-regulation and for weak privacy rules.”

Yahoo announced similar measures, with company president Marissa Mayer saying, “As you know, there have been a number of reports over the last six months about the U.S. government secretly accessing user data without the knowledge of tech companies, including Yahoo. I want to reiterate what we have said the past: Yahoo has never given access to our data centers to the N.S.A. or any other government agency. Ever.”

But Newman argues that there is a basic problem with these statements — they run counter to the business model of these companies.

“These tech companies have spent the last 20 years pushing for self-regulation and for weak privacy rules here in the U.S. and globally, and this facilitates the misuse of personal data, both by spying agencies like the N.S.A., and by the companies themselves,” Newman tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “Google, Facebook — they are direct marketing companies and they exchange information with other list companies. And there are very few rules to regulate that.”

Newman says the companies face a danger to their bottom line unless they can restore customers’ confidence about data privacy, and he argues that “customers, for their part, have to wake up and realize that this is like the environmental movement of the 1970s — that privacy, their personal information, is something they have to protect and mobilize around.”


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Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this week that allegations that the National Security Agency was spying on Google's data centers are outrageous if true. Yahoo's president, Marissa Mayer, says the company has never given access to its data centers to the NSA or any other government agency ever. But Georgetown University Professor Abe Newman argues that, in a way, these companies have helped the NSA collect personal data. Abe Newman's book is "Protectors of Privacy: Regulating Personal Data in the Global Economy." He's with us now, from Washington. Abe Newman, welcome.

ABRAHAM NEWMAN: Thanks, Jeremy.

JOBSON: So, the tech companies seem to be setting up this line that is, oh, whoa is us. Look what the government is doing. They're taking all of our information. The way that you described it, it's not quite so simple.

NEWMAN: Well, that's right. I want to say, on the one hand, these tech companies have spent the last 20 years pushing for self-regulation and for weak privacy rules, both in the United States, but also globally. And second, that this facilitates the misuse of personal data, which allows scandals both by actors like the NSA, but also by the companies themselves. And so I think for the, you know, long-term success of Silicon Valley and its own competitiveness, they have to take privacy seriously now.

JOBSON: What are the federal laws right now that companies like Google or Facebook or Yahoo have to abide by?

NEWMAN: Well, there's a specific law that deals with child information. So, when they collect information about somebody that's a minor, there are rules that they have to abide by that concern their own statements, the contracts they've made, like their privacy principles. But the big, gaping hole is that they don't have to abide by any rules when they trade information with direct marketing companies.

In the end, Google and Facebook, they are direct marketing companies, and they exchange information with other list companies that keep information about your credit card purchases, what you do at CVS, what you're doing by direct mail. And so that kind of information sharing, there's very few rules that could regulate that.

JOBSON: And you write that governments benefit from this, because then all of this information is being collected. Is it being given up voluntarily, or is it being taken by government agencies?

NEWMAN: Well, you know, it's a gray area. There are some things, covert actions, some of the things that have been revealed about the NSA that are being done without the direct consent of these companies. But at the same time, there are many actions that are being taken, you know, with the consent of these companies, where they're sharing information, lists that they get about consumers with political parties. The Obama campaign, for example, made extensive use of the information that's gathered by direct marketing companies in order to target voters. So that's an example where there's a lot of sharing between both political groups and companies.

JOBSON: Abe Newman, do you assume at this point that, essentially, everything you do online is being tracked by somebody, and you have to start with that premise?

NEWMAN: Yes, you definitely do. I mean, these companies, they like to portray themselves as, you know, not being evil. But, in the end, they're marketing firms, and they're trying to collect information so that they can profit from it.

JOBSON: What is the lobbying situation at this point? We know that Silicon Valley companies have gotten more active in Washington in recent years. What kind of legislation are they trying to influence?

NEWMAN: Well, the biggest example - there's two. One, in the United States, is the Do-Not-Track rules - legislation. This was a proposal to limit the ability of Internet providers to track your movements as you go from website to website. But this is not just limited to the U.S. There's been a huge lobbying campaign by U.S. tech companies in Europe to limit rules there. And those rules, up to this point, have been quite strong. And the U.S. lobbying has been an effort to weaken them.

JOBSON: Well, what it's going to take to get U.S. rules up to that level? Or is it possible at this point? Is there enough of a groundswell from the American public, who want stronger privacy rules on these Internet companies?

NEWMAN: Well, I really think there has to be a three-prong change. Consumers, they have to wake up, and they have to realize that this is just like the environmental movement of the 1970s, that privacy - their personal information is something that they have to protect, and that they have to mobilize around. Companies, they have to realize that it's in their long-term economic interests to devote attention to privacy. They're not just vacuums soaking up information. They're stewards, and they need to take a responsibility for their actions.

And third, governments have to see that personal information is really the underpinnings of a digital economy. And for their success, they need this to happen. So they need to build trust, create a set of checks and balances that promote privacy.


Do you see that happening anytime soon?

NEWMAN: Well, you already see a lot of interesting things happening. The best example is the breach notification legislation in California. This was passed a few years ago. It basically says that if a company loses information, it has to notify all the people that - whose information was lost. Well, this really mobilizes consumers. When they get information in the mail that says, you know, Sony lost their data on PlayStation II, that gets them activated and concerned.

So it's just one example of something - it should be a federal law. There's a movement to make it a federal law. People should, you know, write their congressman.

HOBSON: Well, whatever happens in Washington anytime soon - and, of course, getting anything done in Washington right now seems to be a bit of a challenge - there are things going on in other parts of the world. Tell us a little bit about that.

NEWMAN: Sure. Companies like Google and Facebook, they're global companies. There's legislation pending in countries like Germany and Brazil where they're proposing to require all data to be kept within the borders of the country. And so if you're thinking about developing a cloud network or to do data transmission, this is going to affect your bottom line.

HOBSON: Clouds with borders.

NEWMAN: Clouds with borders. Yeah. A fragmented Internet.

HOBSON: Have these companies, like Facebook and Google, taken a hit to their bottom line? It doesn't seem that their numbers of users have gone down significantly since the privacy stuff has hit the news.

NEWMAN: Well, I think for both of these companies - and a lot of the other companies in Silicon Valley - they depend on growth. And their growth is coming in new technologies like things like Google glass. And this is going to require a lot of trust for people to give over personal information, like the things they're viewing as they walk down the street. And to make that happen, to have this trust, they have to address these issues about privacy and how information could be misused.

HOBSON: Although you would think that people would require the same level of trust to give their passwords, their mother's maiden name, their bank information and all the other things that we give to the Internet every single day.

NEWMAN: Yeah. And I think that on the one hand, people are starting to worry about these kinds of issues. But as I said, this is also a global issue. And the question is, will a German citizen give that information to Google? I think what you're seeing right now, in Germany at least, is that's becoming increasingly unlikely. And so when the competition is not just domestic, it puts Google's bottom line at risk.

HOBSON: Abe Newman is a professor at Georgetown University. His book is "Protectors of Privacy: Regulating Personal Data in the Global Economy." Abe Newman, thanks so much.

NEWMAN: Thanks again, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, have you changed your online habits because of privacy concerns? Let us know at This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.