Web privacy - outsourced to the US and China?

A person uses a Chromebook Pixel The latest claims will put internet privacy back in the spotlight

Overnight, the Guardian and the Washington Post have made startling claims about the extent of the US government's surveillance of web communications.

They allege that under a programme called PRISM the intelligence agencies have direct access to the servers of the biggest web firms, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype and Apple.

Now it must be said that all of the firms have denied any knowledge of this programme, insisting they only hand over data when they receive a subpoena relating to named individuals, rather than offering blanket access.

Facebook, for instance, says it does not provide access to any government organisations, and any requests for information from law-enforcement bodies are dealt with on an individual basis in accordance with the law.

But, unlike yesterday's story about the blanket surveillance of American Verizon customers, these latest revelations will raise concerns outside the US. James Clapper, the US intelligence chief, has sought to reassure the public by saying the web-monitoring operation only targets "non-US persons".

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We might loathe the idea, but we probably expect our security services to be eavesdropping and trampling on our civil liberties”

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Not much to worry about then, unless you happen to be a citizen of any other country. And then it only matters if you happen to use the services of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube or Apple. Which means just about everyone who has an online presence.

What this highlights is the way we now entrust our data and our privacy almost entirely to American companies, storing it in their "clouds" - vast data centres located in the US. (Skype, which was founded in Europe, is now owned by Microsoft).

They may be rigorous in their control of that data and our privacy rights - or they may feel obliged to cooperate with their government's demands for greater access. It is hard to know the truth.

And it is not only the US which now plays a crucial role in overseeing our communications activities. Yesterday, Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee raised concerns about the key role China's Huawei plays in our telecoms infrastructure.

So our data is with the Americans, while the Chinese control the equipment used to connect our mobile phone calls and broadband.

Now you may or may not be happy about that. I'm of the view that life is too short to worry about whether the FBI is reading my emails, or scanning my Facebook updates, or China's Red Army is listening to my phone calls.

But most people will agree that the privacy and security of our data should be a matter of personal choice, over which we have at least a degree of control. Now it seems that we have outsourced that control to the US and China and unless you want to withdraw from the digital world there is very little you can do about it.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The underlying story beneath what Rory (and Robert Peston in his latest blog) is saying is that we should get used to being spied upon by our own spies and told what to do and think by the BBC.

    Big Brother (Corporation) is here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Im reading this article and replying from a laptop connected to "The Clouds" free wifi in my local swimming baths... my 2pence worth is simple... these news articles (like most) are designed for one purpose, to be controversial, to gain more user views and ultimately more money for the company which posted it.... chances are your going to browse elsewhere on the site.... never mind the story...

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Re.50: One guy did get a visit from the feds: he was making backpack-bombs to plant in the New York City underground ("subway") and was communicating with AlQaeda about getting his explosive mixture correct. Ha-haa, PWNED!;-) Contrast to: innocent people getting fired & not-hired and not getting apartments when employers & landlords sniff their Facebook dossiers. That's the real privacy threat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I am cyber crime expert still has warned. Why don't their Personal Protection Data, e.g. your profile, age, address, mobile phone and email address.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    This is not new. It did not start the day the Guardian published the story. I has been going on for months or years. How is one less free as of the day the story appears? Who has been harmed? Who has had visits from the police or the feds on grounds of telephone calls? Who?


Comments 5 of 60



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