Over the past several months, a continuing saga has been unfurling before the world. Edward Snowden and others have come forward, revealing classified documents that detail the operations and procedures that the National Security Agency (NSA) engages in to warrantlessly surveill practically every person on the plant. Obviously an intrusion on people’s privacy, one less obvious victim is American business.
A powerful component of the NSA’s operations include exploiting or accessing what are referred to as backdoors. These backdoors come in many forms and vary from hardware modifications to software exploits. A recent report from Der Spiegel outlines many of these exploits publicly for the first time.
American businesses suffer as well as people from the presence of these backdoors. Users are left to conjecture whether the exploits that are described by whistleblowers like Snowden exist as part of a coordinated effort between technology companies and government agencies or whether government agencies are amassing information about security defects in American products and refusing to reveal that knowledge to these companies. If the former, people have good reason to doubt American technology companies for liaising which these entities. If the latter, the United States government is taking an oppositional role to the interests of American companies. Neither option is good.
In fact, the perception and lack of clarity is having a detrimental effect on American technology companies in international markets. The justification of which, it seems, from the NSA is that the efforts have assisted in the prevention of some terrorist plots – an apparent tautology given that all people are surveilled (of course some will prove to be terrorists). But the refusal to assist these companies in improving their products leaves Americans open to potential attacks from entities that will never reveal their activities. Officials at the NSA must be aware of this, which means they are also aware of their adversarial position. If they don’t, the picture may be far bleaker than we think.