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No such thing as privacy on the internet

David Streitfeld and Quentin Hardy (via NYT/ AFR) | June 12, 2013
So the first mystifying thing for some here is how the leading companies - including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Apple and Facebook - apparently made it easier for the National Security Agency to gain access to their data.

Edward Snowden, a former CIA worker who disclosed on Sunday that he was the one who leaked government surveillance documents to The Guardian newspaper , ranks high among the disturbed. In an interview with the newspaper, he called the internet "the most important invention in all of human history". But he said that he believed its value was being destroyed by unceasing surveillance. "I don't see myself as a hero," he told the paper, "because what I'm doing is ­self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and ­creativity."

President Barack Obama, trying to play down the uproar, said Prism targets only foreign nationals and that it was worth giving up a little privacy for more security.

"I think that's a dangerous statement," says Bob Taylor, a computer scientist who played a major role in the 1960s in formulating what would become the internet. "The government should have told us it was doing this. And that suggests the more fundamental problem: that we're not in control of our government."

For some tech luminaries with less than fond feelings for Washington, the disclosures about Prism had special force. This was personal.

Bob Metcalfe, the acclaimed inventor of the standard method of connecting computers in one location, wrote on Twitter that he was less worried about whatever the National Security Agency might be doing "than about how Obama Regime will use their data to suppress political opposition (e.g. me)".

But if Silicon Valley is alarmed about the ways that the personal data now coursing through every byway of the internet can be misused, it has been a long time coming.

Even as the larger computer makers sold their systems to the government and start-ups of all sorts trafficked in personal information, the companies tried to keep clear of government rules that might cramp their vision - and their profits. They also proved adept at lobbying.

Threats by regulators like Christine ­Varney, the internet specialist at the Federal Trade Commission, to impose greater oversight on how personal data was being used online resulted in the formation in 1998 of the Online Privacy Alliance. The industry coalition was credited with turning the debate in the industry's direction.

Its chief spokeswoman, Varney, went through the Washington revolving door and emerged as a champion of ­industry.

In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, summed up the valley's attitude towards personal data in what became a defining comment of the dot-com boom.

"You have zero privacy," he said. "Get over it."


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