After several instances of groveling appeasement of the Chinese authorities that seem to have done it no good whatsoever in the longer-term, "do no evil" empire Google is now chumming up with the US National Security Agency (NSA), ostensibly in an effort to protect itself from...? Yup, you've guessed it - irony upon irony - Chinese cyber-attacks! Martyn Warwick reports.
Apparently the small print of the co-operation agreement is still being finalised but Google seems to have persuaded the NSA to help analyse aspects of the full-on December 2009 attack on its servers and network that, the company says, originated in China. The alleged object of the collaboration is to minimise the effects of any future attack.
An anonymous source quoted in the US media says the alliance will permit the two organisations to share "critical information without violating Google's policies or laws that protect the privacy of American citizen's online communications."
An emollient sentiment, but like the man said back in 1651, "fine words butter no parsnips". That's as true now as it was in the time of Oliver Cromwell; words are cheap and the NSA, the largest intelligence agency in the US, has a reputation for being a law unto itself and all too often riding roughshod over privacy laws and civil rights, most blatantly and recently during the period of younger Bush's warrantless wiretapping programme and the clandestine eavesdropping on and recording of the conversations and email communications of private US citizens.
The NSA has also co-operated on security matters with several other private US commercial organisations in the past, including AT&T and Microsoft, and will no doubt be delighted to continue to expand such involvement. Indeed, it's probably hit the mother lode with Google.
The company has truly global reach and mind-boggling quantities of of user data including search histories, e-mail, and personal documents.
In the past, Google claimed to have steered clear of co-operating with the NSA in its Terrorist Surveillance Program and with other US intelligence agencies and now that it's changing tack the company will have to tread carefully for Google is putting itself directly in the glare of media and public attention and will need to be able to demonstrate convincingly that the NSA won't be peering into Google users' email accounts or spying on their web browsing history and habits.
And then, of course, there's the vexed legal question of a private company such as Google, that has a contract (of sorts) with its customers, voluntarily sharing private information and proprietary data with a government agency.
Central to the proposal is the delicate and tricky matter of balancing the legal right of the privacy of the individual against national security interests - and history is littered with examples of governments promising that an erosion of civil rights, while necessary, would be temporary and for the duration of a particular crisis or emergency only - and then reneging on its commitments and accruing more and more power to the state (or States).
That's where totalitarianism begins, and only this very week, Dennis Blair, the Director of US National Intelligence signposted the likely future when he said, "Cyberspace cannot be protected without a collaborative effort that incorporates both the US private sector and our international partners." There you have it.
Now, whilst individual citizens may well mistrust government motives in this matter, private companies should be even more suspicious and wary. Inviting a cuckoo into the nest in the form of the NSA or other government agency is asking for problems. Governments of every stripe in many part of the world are incredibly bad at protecting data, stopping leaks and maintaining security and private companies and the public must insist that any information-sharing agreements must be subject to rigorous independent oversight, control and sanction if so-celled "mission-creep" is to be avoided.
As Ellen Mccarthy, the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (an organisation comprising former intelligence officers) says "The critical question is: At what level will the American public be comfortable with Google sharing information with NSA?"
It sure is. Trouble is they won't know what that level will be unless strong legal safeguards are put in place now.
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