The disclosure of previously secret National Security Agency surveillance programs has left many Americans worried that the privacy of their personal data and communications is in jeopardy.
In an apparent effort to alleviate those concerns, a senior administration official said President Obama's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is reviewing U.S. counterterrorism actions to ensure "that the need for such actions is balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties."
For some American companies, the NSA revelations raise separate concerns. Their commercial fortunes could be at risk as a result of disclosures that the companies have been colluding with the U.S. government's sweeping data collection efforts.
"U.S. tech companies have been compelled by the U.S. government, under court order, to do things that really aren't in their shareholders' interest or in their customers' interest," says Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
People around the world now know that these companies are turning over to the government some of the personal data they have gathered during the course of doing business. Their reputations may suffer as a result.
"The dream is over," says Richard Stiennon, an industry analyst who covers American technology companies. "The era of U.S. tech dominance in everything from servers to routers to the cloud is facing a crisis of confidence," Stiennon wrote in a recent column for Forbes magazine.
In an interview, Stiennon said he fears one reaction to the NSA revelations will be "to start pulling business away from U.S. tech companies."
Much is at stake. The World Economic Forum, in a report published more than two years ago, observed that personal data — information about likes and dislikes, travel and communications, friends and acquaintances — "is generating a new wave of opportunity for economic and value creation. ... As some put it, personal data will be the new 'oil' ... It will emerge as a new asset class."
The earnings of such companies as Google and Facebook make that prospect clear.
All that personal information, however, is also worth a fortune to intelligence and security agencies. The companies that gather personal data, therefore, almost inevitably get pulled into the surveillance business.
The U.S. government may be no more intrusive than other governments or less likely to regulate surveillance activities. A report issued last month by Hogan Lovells, a Washington- and Paris-based law firm specializing in privacy issues, concluded that U.S. law imposes "as much, if not more" oversight on surveillance as do laws in many European countries. But the reputation of U.S. tech companies may nonetheless be damaged.
"It wouldn't surprise me, it would be very rational, for foreign companies or individuals to just decide to try and avoid American cyberspace where they can," says the Atlantic Council's Healey.
Stiennon, the tech industry analyst, echoes that concern. "Russia and China years ago stopped using Microsoft in their governments and military," he points out. "What if that starts to spread around the world?"
In any case, the reactions to the NSA revelations in the United States are certain to reverberate around the world, especially those concerning the monitoring of Internet communications.
"An overwhelming proportion of Internet activity is still conducted through America or with American businesses," notes Malcolm Crompton, a former privacy commissioner in Australia who now heads his own privacy consultancy. "So the impact of an American legal framework and American transparency and accountability practices [around electronic surveillance] is disproportionately large."
The controversy over collusion between the NSA and U.S. tech companies will have additional consequences in the United States. Many U.S. companies work voluntarily as "trusted partners" with the U.S. government in a joint effort to counter cyberattacks. A question now is whether such collaboration will become more awkward.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. At the White House today, President Obama met with a group that will advise him on whether the government is respecting Americans' right to privacy. It's the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency. The board was established in 2004, but is just now getting down to work. A central task: considering how to balance the protection of civil liberties with the need to ensure security.
BLOCK: Some private tech companies find themselves caught up in that balancing act. U.S. officials say that in order to fight terrorism, the government needs to be able to gather and analyze some personal data. And as we've learned in the last two weeks, this data collection requires tech companies to collaborate with the government in previously undisclosed ways. NPR's Tom Gjelten has this story about what that means for the companies involved.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Two years ago, the World Economic Forum said personal data is the new oil, a new resource for wealth creation. Information on who we talk to, when and how, where we go, what we spend money on - all that can help analysts understand and even predict our behavior. That presents huge business opportunities for companies like Google and Facebook, but all those data are also worth a fortune to intelligence and security agencies.
So the companies that gather personal data almost inevitably get pulled into the surveillance business. It's not something they can be especially happy about, as Jason Healey - of the Atlantic Council - points out.
JASON HEALEY: U.S. tech companies have been compelled by the U.S. government, under court order, to do things that really aren't in their shareholders' interests or in their customers' interests.
GJELTEN: As recent revelations have made clear, these companies are forced to turn over to the government some of the personal data they've gathered during the course of doing business. The repercussions are still being played out. Malcolm Crompton(ph), a former privacy commissioner in Australia, says, for example, that when the U.S. establishes rules for Internet communications, they're felt around the world.
MALCOLM CROMPTON: An overwhelming proportion of Internet activity is still conducted through America or with American businesses. So the impact of American transparency and accountability processes is disproportionately large.
GJELTEN: In part because of the recent NSA revelations, the United States is now developing an international reputation for infringing on privacy. And the more concerns are raised about what is happening in the United States, the more other governments and tech companies in other countries are likely to see a downside to doing business here. Jason Healey directs the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
HEALEY: It wouldn't surprise me - it would be very rational - for foreign companies or individuals to just decide to try and avoid American cyberspace, where they can.
GJELTEN: Passing laws, for example, that their citizens' data can't be stored in the United States. American tech companies would be big losers.
HEALEY: For example, already in China, you see they don't use Twitter. They don't use Facebook and other products. They've got local equivalents.
GJELTEN: Richard Steenan(ph), an industry analyst focusing on tech companies, started a recent blog with these words: "The dream is over." U.S. tech, he said, is facing a crisis of confidence. The controversy over collusion between the NSA and U.S. companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft could also have consequences here in the United States.
Many of these companies work voluntarily with the government in a joint effort to counter cyberattacks. They're considered, quote, "trusted partners." A question now is whether it becomes more awkward for them to cooperate in that way.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.