June 9, 2013 7:08 pm

Obama has hurt himself and business over privacy

Data privacy is a handy weapon for those challenging the titans
Obama Comment Page illustration©Matt Kenyon

Foreigners are often struck by the polarisation in Washington. But when it comes to the US surveillance state, there is little daylight between Republicans and Democrats. Barring a few liberals and libertarians, the National Security Agency’s data-trawling operations are backed by a clear bipartisan majority in Congress. Worries about the growth of America’s data-intelligence complex do not attract high ratings. Some US cable channels were last week unable to find a single lawmaker to criticise the NSA on air, following leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers about its giant data dragnets. In Europe, politicians were queueing up to voice their misgivings.

Therein lies President Barack Obama’s largest – and largely self-created – problem. If there is polarisation over the scope of the US surveillance state, it is transatlantic. Mr Obama’s deft assessment of how much electronic intrusion the US public will tolerate is so far matched only by his tin ear for how it sounds to foreigners. When asked on Friday about the NSA’s capture of telephone “metadata” and its Prism gateway into foreigners’ emails, the president only addressed the domestic side and dismissed concerns about Prism. “With respect to the internet and emails, this does not apply to US citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States,” he said.

That was probably a mistake. The US media and civil liberty groups are questioning the safeguards for Prism – there is little confidence Americans will not be caught in the NSA’s internet trawls. But Washington’s reassurances are irrelevant to the 2.4bn non-Americans who are also online. Mr Obama emphasised that Prism was only possible with approval from the other two branches of government, as the NSA requires for its collection of domestic telephone data. But foreigners might not be comforted to learn that their privacy is protected by a secret US court, which is overseen by a select group of US lawmakers who are themselves sworn to secrecy. Nor are the other safeguards likely to inspire confidence, since they too are secret.

It is possible that a more damaging leak will tip US public opinion against further growth of what has morphed into a huge data-intelligence complex, employing an estimated 854,000 people. But for the time being, Mr Obama’s main concern should be about its impact on diplomacy and commerce. The US is losing credibility in its goal of trying to stop the internet from balkanising into separate national legal frameworks. Mr Obama has also championed global internet freedom and criticised the “great firewall of China” and other national internet controls. Those exhortations will now be treated with scepticism.

Is the US a beacon of light, or a Big Brother recording your life? Foreigners need not sign up to the self-serving conspiracy theories of internet anarchists, such as Julian Assange, to feel a twinge of Orwellian doubt. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Mr Obama reassured Americans last Friday. “I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

Mr Obama’s description may well be accurate, though we can never be sure. But his Socratic grasp of the trade-offs does not necessarily extend to the US intelligence community. According to Business Insider, Ira Hunt, the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief technology officer, says technology has opened up a golden age of data gathering where “more is always better”. Each of us is already a “walking sensor platform”, he told a conference in New York in March. And the age of cognitive machines, such as IBM’s Watson, is only just beginning. “Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have ... we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” Mr Hunt said. “It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information.”

Last week’s leaks were also potential bad news for Google, Facebook and other big US internet companies. More than 90 per cent of the world’s internet users are foreign. In one form or another, most hold email accounts with US companies such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, watch and share videos via YouTube or post profiles on US social media sites such as Facebook.

In Europe, which has far stricter data laws than the US, there was already deep concern about Washington’s approach to privacy, which was expected to cause problems in the upcoming transatlantic trade talks. Now it is certain to do so. Last week Peter Schaar, the German official responsible for data protection, described Prism as “monstrous”.

Foreigners and Americans alike are now awaiting the next bombshell. Given cynicism about Facebook’s data-mining methods, few would have been soothed by Mark Zuckerberg’s response to last week’s leaks: “We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure,” he said. It is hard to imagine another country creating a Google or an Amazon, but if non-US companies want to challenge the titans, data privacy is now the weapon of choice.

Of course, non-Americans, and particularly Europeans, still have high trust in Mr Obama. But that is also a problem. They know the apparatus he helped create will long outlast his tenure. He was the candidate who flagged his past as a constitutional lawyer to signal things would be different if he won. Now it seems that things have only changed so they can stay the same.

edward.luce@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE