snowden_teleconference
TechTank

The Big Snoop: Steps for American Business to Protect Privacy

Joshua Bleiberg

In the recent Brookings Essay “The Big Snoop: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Terrorists”.   Stuart Taylor Jr. summarizes the debate about the NSA in the Snowden Era.  He also describes a number of policy recommendations under consideration by Congress and the President.  These proposals mainly address voter concerns about domestic spying.  American businesses, particularly technology firms, face serious challenges in the wake the intelligence disclosures.  Taylor reports:

After the Snowden leaks, many of those companies hardened their encryption and reinforced their firewalls to protect themselves from their own government. They feared that NSA collection of their customers’ private data would lead many to switch their business to foreign competitors, and that U.S. companies may be whipsawed between obeying FISA Court orders to spy abroad and incurring penalties for violating foreign governments’ privacy rules.

Lost Revenue for Technology Companies

U.S. businesses are stuck between their foreign competitors and U.S. signals intelligence policy.  There is quite a lot at stake.  Some have predicted that American firms stand to lose between $22 and $180 billion over the next three years.  Even more concerning is the prospect of Internet Balkanization that would freeze out Silicon Valley from new markets.  American tech firms do not relish their role as intelligence gathering middlemen, but feel they have few options.

How Tech Firms Can Protect Privacy

In a recent speech Brookings Distinguished Fellow Cameron Kerry described a few steps that American companies can take to help protect the privacy of their customers through improved transparency.  Most Americans have a cloudy understanding of the conclusions that skilled data scientists can draw from apps or phone records.  By providing clearer and more detailed information consumers can balance the intrusiveness of a service with other factors.  This could also create more demand for products that have strong privacy protections.

Tech companies should not wait for changes from Washington.  In truth American law offers stronger privacy protections than many foreign governments.  U.S. technology firms stand to gain an advantage over international competition by taking proactive steps to ensure the privacy of their customers.

Author

J

Joshua Bleiberg

PhD student, Vanderbilt University. Former Research Analyst, The Brookings Institution.