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NSA Unleashed And What That Means For Tech Firms

John Yoo, your guest today, is largely known for his role in justifying the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques while serving with the Bush Administration, although many other people consider many of those techniques as torture.  I mostly remember Mr. Yoo as the guy who opened the pandora’s box of NSA spying on American citizens that is still a topic of very heated argument today, more than a decade later.
Before I get to that point, I have to say that while I was in the Air Force, I trained as an interrogator and had the opportunity to use those skills a few times while I was in the Air Force Reserve.  So, as someone who has direct knowledge of the way our military interrogates prisoners during war, I can tell you that any sort of enhanced techniques are a more often than not counterproductive.  Common sense tells you that if you cause someone pain and discomfort, they’ll be happy to tell you anything to make you stop. I’m proud of the fact that most of us trained interrogators know that there are much more reliable and effective ways to get the information we need. Anyway, enough about that.  Let me get off my soap box!

Getting back to the NSA rulings, what most people don’t know is that until the Bush Administration changed the rules, the NSA was strictly prohibited from any sort of surveillance that might track American citizens in the U.S.  Even overseas, the NSA was very careful to restrict its activities so as not to inadvertently listen in on US citizens. That changed, of course, after 9/11.  The Bush folks saw the war on terror an AL-Qaeda as something new which justified the use of the NSA’s immense surveillance capabilities on American soil and American citizens.

Despite all the revelations that began with Eric Snowden’s massive data dump of classified intelligence information, the NSA genie has yet to be put back into the bottle, which was front and center recently when President Obama convened a summit in Silicon Valley to address the issue of cyber security. He invited the leaders of a lot of the top tech companies to attend but many of them, including the heads of Google and Yahoo declined to participate, which many people saw a sign of protest against the government’s continued surveillance of Americans.

In fact, many U.S. companies have been significantly hurt by the revelations that the NSA had access to data stored by those firms.  Trust in American technology businesses has decreased since the documents Snowden released suggested that the NSA was directly tapping into the servers of nine U.S. companies to obtain customer data for national security investigations under a program called PRISM.  Given heightened concern overseas about the NSA’s ability to access data stored by U.S. companies, those that offer cloud computing and webhosting services are experiencing an acute economic fallout, with some suffering declines of business of over 50%.

Just this week, we learned from the security company Kaspersky Lab that the NSA is suspected of being behind the most ambitious cyber hacking effort uncovered, going back almost 14 years. The level of sophistication and the depth of penetration of U.S. hardware and software vendors with malicious code designed to spy on users leaves little doubt that the government was behind the effort.

To this day, government agencies in the US and Europe insist that tech companies have to balance privacy concerns with national security interests by providing some type of back door access.  Let’s face it, tech companies don’t want to be put in that position, balancing privacy against national security, but, like I said, the genie that John Yoo and the Bush Administration unleashed won’t go back into the bottle without a fight.

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