Does “Don’t Be Evil” Mean “Give the NSA Direct Access to Our Servers”?


4-Step Computer Security Upgrade

Learn to encrypt your files, secure your computer when using public Wi-Fi, enable two-factor authentication, and use good passwords.

In light of the news over the last couple of days, it has become painfully clear that Google and I have different understandings of the meaning of the word evil. I’m referring, obviously, to Google’s famous “don’t be evil” slogan. But according to the Washington Post, the NSA is mining data “directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” (Notably absent: Twitter; Dropbox is listed as “coming soon.”)

The PRISM program was apparently authorized by secret courts based on secret interpretations of secret laws. (It was also, apparently, PalTalk’s big shot at fame, since nobody knew what it was before this story broke.)

The NSA is getting similar information from your cell phone carrier, apparently.

How can you avoid this? You can’t, really. The only way out of this is to go back to using private couriers to communicate. What you can do is call your representatives in Congress and tell them you don’t appreciate them letting the NSA snoop your data.

If you want to stop using the above services, that’s fine. It’s easy enough to switch your mail server back to a private hosting account, although I have zero confidence that will avoid the NSA’s prying. Oh, and don’t email anyone using a Gmail or Hotmail/ or Yahoo! Mail account, either. Firefox is still a great browser, and now looks to be more private than Chrome. Oh, and you’ll need to switch to a Linux-based operating system, since Microsoft and Apple are on the NSA’s list of friends. Ubuntu is a good option.

But don’t kid yourself. The NSA is also building a huge data center in Utah to suck down every packet of information from the Internet that it can find, encrypted or not. It will just save the heavily-encrypted stuff for later, when its processing power catches up to the encryption algorithms. The NSA (with the approval of both political parties and all three branches of government) is determined to get your communications data, and it doesn’t really matter what you use.

(By the way, it seems unlikely that every lawyer in the country has just inadvertently waived the attorney-client privileged, so let’s not get sidetracked.)

So call your representative. Dismal as the prospect may seem, the only real option here seems to be the political one.

(image: Electronic Frontier Foundation)


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  • Right now, these companies are claiming no knowledge of the program. Right… Also, both House and Senate leadership indicate they were aware of the spying and have no problems: “it saved American lives.”

  • Mark

    Having just recently started using cloud based products, I hate the idea of moving backwards. And I suspect the response by most people will be to grudgingly accept this latest intrusion by the government. I used to complain about taking off my shoes at the airport security line. Now I wear loafers when I fly so the nuisance is lessened. I think at the very least I will no longer store client files in the cloud, and invest in a better file cabinet for my office.

  • JJ

    Perhaps we should discuss the ethical implications these revelations create for lawyers using cloud services provided by the “Friends of the NSA”.

    • Go ahead and start the discussion. I’m curious as to what you think might be unethical.

      • JJ

        Well since we are all on notice that the government may be riffling through our iClouds and GDrives, pretextually searching for incriminating evidence against would-be terrorists, wouldn’t you agree that attorneys need to be a little more cautious as to what client information they choose to store on a cloud server? I believe that it is only a matter of time before the government begins to use these kinds of surveillance programs for every day crime-fighting. In light of Maryland v. King, how long until using evidence obtained through NSA surveillance of iClouds and GDrives are considered a “legitimate means of identifying individuals suspected of committing serious crimes.” Perhaps my tinfoil hat is on backwards, but I am fearful of an argument from the government along the lines that “neither an attorney nor her client has a reasonable expectation of privacy using online cloud services given the open, notorious, and systematic surveillance of cloud services for several years.” Our heroes on the SCOTUS will uphold this line of thinking by opining that in 1776, cloud services did not exist and are therefore not covered by the Fourth Amendment. Finally, now being put on notice that the federal government can and may examine the contents of our cloud based file cabinets, wouldn’t you agree that as attorneys it is on us to protect our client’s best interests by limiting what client data we choose to store on cloud based services?

  • Vivia Rodriguez

    Those denials are meaningless spinning: Apple says the government “…must get a court order..”; Microsoft provides the info only when it is legally bound to do so; Google discloses according to the law.

    So these fine folks are telling us that the FISA court orders fall under some other category of “court order,” is not legally binding and is not according to the law, respectively? Right.

    As for keeping my client’s info safe…I’m considering paper files again, buried somewhere in my back yard–not. There is no way to get away from the searching and seizing frenzy.

    (Hope I provided a working link for the reference).

  • Secret courts based on secret interpretations of secret laws are evil. What point having a constitution if those kinds of things are allowed?

  • John
  • Correct me if I am wrong but it seems to me that most of the powerful nations of the past fell not because of foreign invaders but because of their own political incompetence, debt and over spending. So maybe the surveillance is pointing in the wrong direction.