The cost of the Internet: Our freedom

Last week I visited the U.S. capital and had the pleasure of meeting so many people – members of Congress, leaders of technology corporations and associations, concerned citizens - who understand the Internet risks of today.

If you think of it, the Internet is rather like a city. Some streets look like Main Avenue while others more resemble dark and dangerous alleys.  Despite knowing this, U.S. citizens have been only too happy to publicize their lives on the Internet, posting pictures of their children, their homes and their worldly goods for all to see or carelessly sharing their personal information for the latest “act now and save” offer from random websites. A few have learned their lesson after falling victim to criminals who perpetrated a cyber crime such as identity theft, but recently all eyes were opened to the invasive acts being perpetrated by the U.S. government – as well as other governments around the world – as games of mass interception were played in the name of “national security,” striking at the core and soft underbelly of the global communications network.

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This shocking revelation demonstrated a clear, targeted attack on the right to privacy afforded to U.S. citizens under the Constitution, but it also exposed the inherent vulnerabilities of doing business around the world. In doing so, it also shattered a founding assumption of the Internet in the eyes of the masses. The Internet is not actually free. The real cost of the Internet is our freedom to communicate privately.
 
At the individual level we can be outraged, but at the corporate level this reality is considerably more alarming. While NSA might be of concern for U.S. corporations, it is the foreign intelligence services, some purportedly friendly and others definitely not so, that should cause the greatest anxiety. The fact that these entities have the ability, the desire and the determination to harvest data – perhaps intercepting phone calls, text messages and documents sent between executives about a merger or perhaps intercepting privileged communications between executives and attorneys – could have devastating effects on the U.S. economy, with a fiscal impact so pervasive it makes the Great Recession look insignificant.

Need a more realistic example? How safe would you feel about a U.S. aircraft carrier “designed in America, made in China”? Neglecting the information security needs of U.S. corporations puts the security that underpins all American freedoms at risk. And it also risks the position of the U.S. as a global superpower.

Whatever any of us thinks of Snowden, his actions may have now finally led to being a catalyst for the pendulum to swing the other way, though not everyone is hearing the call for action.  The U.S. government needs to enlist the help of – and then embrace and support – the tech industry in providing information protection products and services that make it safe to once again conduct business in America and across the globe. If the U.S. government continues to be an obstacle to privacy rights, if it continues to halt the very nature of entrepreneurialism by attacking companies such as Lavabit, which was forced to shut down part of its information protection services, then it leaves its business and citizen communities no choice but to turn to information security talent abroad.

We are all aware that global communication networks are compromised; there are too many back doors, leaky doors and vulnerabilities. And fixing these issues is a complete waste of time since the moment you fix one leak another one springs up somewhere else. The U.S. government needs to foster an environment in which its business and citizen communities design, build and deploy information security technologies that are trusted at home and abroad. As such technologies emerge, they will provide a safer foundation from which to debate the delicate balance between privacy and surveillance. And they will provide a very visible signal that the U.S. government is once again focused on protecting its businesses and citizens from very real and very dangerous daily global threats.

Boulter is the chairman of Seecrypt, an app for Apple and Android smart phones that allows highly encrypted communications (voice and instant messaging) between two registered devices.