PhotoThere's an old joke about how a pessimist will say a glass is half-empty whereas an optimist says it's half-full. Either way, it's hard to look at the glass and say objectively which interpretation is correct.

You can perhaps find a similar “half-full, half-empty, not sure if good news or bad” vibe in this Washington Post report that tech companies including Apple and Facebook are now defying government authorities by notifying users of “secret data demands:”

“Major U.S. technology companies have largely ended the practice of quietly complying with investigators’ demands for e-mail records and other online data, saying that users have a right to know in advance when their information is targeted for government seizure. … Fueling the shift is the industry’s eagerness to distance itself from the government after last year’s disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance of online services. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google all are updating their policies to expand routine notification of users about government data seizures, unless specifically gagged by a judge or other legal authority.”

The glass-half-empty pessimist might say “Okay, so ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden released certain documents, we've known that the NSA is pretty much spying on all Americans, despite Fourth Amendment prohibitions against such behavior, and the major tech companies have been quietly going along with this.” But then the half-full optimist can respond “Yeah, but from now on, at least the tech companies say they'll let us know about it. Unless of course the government goes through the trouble of getting a gag order first.”

Gag orders

In January 2014, for example, Bit-tech News, reporting on a then-current news story, said that “Apple has denied claims that its software comes with a built-in back-door at the request of the National Security Agency (NSA), but admits that it operates under a gagging order that prevents it from revealing too much about its work with the spook outfit.”

So we know Apple's doing “something” with the NSA, but we don't know what and they're not allowed to tell us. Not that Apple is in any way unique; in June 2013, for example, Google made headlines after going to court in an attempt to overturn a gag order requiring it to keep silent regarding exactly what information it was being forced to turn over to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The gag order rules were “relaxed” this past February, when various tech companies were allowed to at least announce the scope of various NSA requests. Yahoo, for example, announced that during the period from January to June 2013 it provided content on “somewhere between 30,000- 39,999 accounts,” and Facebook “somewhere between 5,000-5,999 accounts.”

Serious privacy risks

Coincidentally, the Washington Post story about tech companies fighting back against the indiscriminate government collection of data came out on May 1, the same day Politico reported that, according to a just-released three-month study sponsored by the White House, Americans face serious privacy risks if big businesses are allowed to indiscriminately collect all their data.

Of course, the White House study said nothing about any privacy risks if big businesses are required to indiscriminately collect Americans' data on behalf of the government, then forbidden to let anybody know about it.


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