Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, Google CEO Eric Schmidt assured his audience by saying he was “pretty sure,” that the company’s user data was protected from “prying eyes,” which included the U.S government. In response to the Edward Snowden incident, where large volumes of classified information were released to the public, the company has upgraded their encryption process. Without divulging too much information, especially about the specifics of these new encryption systems, Mr. Schmidt stated that the only way to protect user data was to essentially “encrypt more.” In addition to the increased encryption levels the company also claims to have upgraded many of their digital security systems.
The details of this upgrade share the same story of secrecy with that of its new encryption standards. This is perhaps why Mr. Schmidt’s public announcement is significant. After whistle blowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have shown that not even classified government data is safe, and that a government agency like the NSA spends billions of dollars recording everyone’s digital footprint, many have questioned not only their safety online but also their right to privacy in an increasingly digital world.
In other words, when the very same government that spies on every citizen’s online activity cannot keep its classified and sensitive information safe from the hands of whistle-blowers or hackers, what level of security and privacy is the average citizen and internet user entitled to when they visit major websites like Google, Yahoo or Facebook? Most of these billion dollar online conglomerates not only store the personal data of their users but also use this information to understand their clientele and improve their business model to increase profits. So when a company like Google tries to assure everyone that their user data is protected from the intrusion of not only the government but also from any other security threat, the company is making a bold attempt to boost the confidence of their millions of customers.
Responding to this customer concern for a company like Google could be more about keeping the business profitable than about any moral qualms concerning an online user’s right to privacy. To his credit, Mr. Schmidt contends that the NSA’s intrusions into their user database was without Google’s knowledge. He also went as far as to say that an intrusion by the US government was not dissimilar from any other intrusion including one from any other government. In this respect, the NSA intrusion by the US government in 2013 was no different from that of the Chinese in 2010. From a security point of view, Mr. Schmidt contends that the US government is still the number one threat to anybody’s online privacy.
Eric Schmidt also spoke of his personal philosophy with regard to the internet – that it should be free and open for all people all over the world. Despite the upgrade in security technology and encryption standards, the company is still bound by the US Patriot Act and the secret court system that functions for judicial matters that are of concern to national security. This is a compromise that no amount of new age technology can address because it is the law. By taking into account all the events of the recent past, with regard to the activities of the NSA that have been brought to light, it is now clear that their activities are for the most part legal. So when Google makes an announcement that all of its user data is protected from the government, it can be inferred is that it is probably safe until a court orders the release of a private data record. How safe these secret courts are is another question for the American people to decide, but that is something Google will not have to answer for.
By Unni K. Nair