How will the NSA PRISM spying scandal impact big Tech companies?

FILE PHOTO  NSA Compiles Massive Database Of Private Phone Calls
Nine major US Tech companies – including Apple, Google, Facebook, and “Dropbox next on the wish list” – have just been reported to be part of PRISM, a grand scale surveillance programme run by the NSA. Beyond the debate on the role of the US Govt, one of the dimensions of this affair is the impact on the relationship and level of trust between those technology players and their users.

Over the years, more or less implicitly, the Silicon Valley giants have had a deal: we allow them to gather data about our lives. In return, we get free or very cheap services that we have fun using or that make us more productive. The deal has always been ill-defined because it’s inherently one-sided. We don’t really know what kind of data is collected and happens to it.

Yet despite the significant potential for abuse, people carry around devices with surveillance capacities that former East German officials would not have dared dream of. Our machines know who we talk to, what we buy, where we are; basically how we can be blackmailed. But neither Facebook nor Google have judiciary powers to indict people, to refuse visas, to access Tax Files, whereas the US government does, hence the storm over this affair.

In the long run, a scandal such as PRISM may change the calculus we have allowed to evolve:

– If users perceive they can’t truly trust these firms’ promises, it may spark demand for alternatives to centralised clouds. This could boost true peer-to-peer solutions, and make anonymous search engines more attractive. It might set up a market for encrypted email services, for apps that shut down location-tracking on phones, for web browsers and plug-ins that prevent from being followed online.

– Another implication is geopolitical: the EU, already in a fierce debate over data privacy, is pushing for data protection laws, which the US want watered down. PRISM is a major blow to US lobbying.

This type of affair further makes the case for the emergence of virtual and open work systems to challenge our industrial corporate paradigm and its reliance on proprietary value chains. There is a growing incoherence between organisations relying on systems that customers and staff increasingly distrust, try to bypass or seek alternatives.

Consumers may likely shrug about PRISM per se, and will continue to share their lives online. In the long run, however, this affair makes the case for private services and protectionist reactions more compelling. The French (of course) have two national clouds under development and recently blocked Yahoo! from investing in competitor Dailymotion controlled by Orange-France Telecom. It might have further consequences in altering the current trend of a global, unified Cloud run by data-mining companies making big data projects such as self-driving cars possible. It might also change the economics of the online world. Those wanting to move away from proprietary services won’t have their operating systems subsidized by ads, and they will pay a lot more for it. The future will tell if the possibility that they might prefer that trade-off is material…

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