The NSA spying scandal and the way it runs through Silicon Valley "is the story that just won't go away," to borrow a phrase from Fox News.
Details -- some accurate, some not -- of the government's snooping continue to trickle out. Many of us continue to wonder just what the government has scooped up about us from our go-to social networking and search companies like Google (GOOG), Facebook, Yahoo (YHOO) and Apple (AAPL). And some of us wonder just what those companies have done to try to protect our privacy
It's the last question that has become my personal obsession. The feds and the commercial keepers of the Internet have said all the right things to make us feel better. When several news outlets were reporting that the NSA through a program called Prism was tapping directly into the servers of search engines and social media sites, executives said that was not the case. The NSA explained that it was only targeting foreign suspects and only with the authorization of a top-secret court.
But does any of that put you at ease? Me neither.
There is something that could help us all feel better about the oceans of personal data that are sloshing around out there: National security officials should free companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo to explain what is going on in much greater detail. After all, we are their customers. We put our trust in them. They have benefited greatly from using our data to target ads and develop marketing schemes. They know more about us than we know about ourselves.
All this was on my mind recently when I attended a New York Times global forum. This one, hosted by columnist Thomas Friedman, centered on the notion that we'd moved from being a connected society to a hyper-connected one and that the transformation has changed everything from business to security to philanthropy to education to relationships.
The spin was generally positive, but obviously this increased connectivity has some serious down sides.
Among the many speakers was Dov Seidman, CEO of corporate consultancy LRN and a guy who's become a guru of good corporate behavior. He seemed a logical one to ask about the role of valley companies in the NSA drama.
"At the end of the day," Seidman, whose outfit works with Fortune 500 companies globally, told me, "the Silicon Valley companies that are capturing a lot of data are in a very precarious and a very rich relationship with their (customers). Their currency is trust and if they do anything to betray that trust, it's going to be hard to regain it."
No kidding. The problem is that it's going to be hard for Silicon Valley companies to maintain or regain that trust if the federal government continues to muzzle them.
Part of Seidman's gospel is that the world has become a place where what companies do is important, but more important is how they do things. The explosion of social media and the ability to immediately and broadly call out bad corporate behavior, means that companies that act unethically or otherwise mistreat customers, partners, suppliers and others will have a hard time getting away with it.
Few things matter more to people than their personal information, said Seidman, author of "How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything." "So these are the crown jewels that these companies are possessing," he said. "They've got to handle them with great care."
How have they done? Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and others have pushed back, asking the feds to let them disclose more details about government demands for information and corporate responses to those demands. But the feds have provided little useful relief.
No question it would be good to get a good accounting. I'd also be interested in knowing what search and social media companies did when the NSA first came calling. The week the NSA news broke, I wrote a blog post wondering whether Silicon Valley companies stood up for our privacy. Did they go to court to fight the orders to turn over data? Did they use their considerable connections in Congress? It would be fair to say the post was critical and assumed the worst.
But now comes news that at least one company in 2008 fought a request made under the law that governs the Prism program. The legal battle was fought secretly and to this day the court hasn't disclosed the name of the company, although The New York Times reported that it was Yahoo.
That is exactly the sort of information that the feds should allow companies to disclose. There is no need to keep the targeted company secret five years later. If they ever doubted it, terrorists now know that investigators monitor U.S. Internet companies; and they know Yahoo is a U.S. Internet company. That Yahoo fought a surveillance order would tell those who mean us harm nothing they don't already know.
But it would tell consumers a lot. For instance, if Yahoo fought the feds prying through Prism and Google didn't (something we can't know for sure) a reasonable consumer might want to shift from Google to Yahoo for search, or from Gmail to Yahoo Mail for correspondence.
At the very least, a reasonable consumer would want to know the track record of the two companies in order to make an informed decision.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.