The NSA and Mark Zuckerberg’s Righteous Anger

Mark Zuckerberg is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Actually, he is going to take it, because we all are going to take it, at least for the foreseeable future.

Mark Zuckerberg is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Actually, he is going to take it, because we all are going to take it, at least for the foreseeable future.

Zuckerberg is upset that the NSA is spying on his users, and even madder that the agency is allegedly using fake Facebook servers to infect targets with malware as part of surveillance operations. In a post on his personal page Thursday, Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, sounded a bit like a parent at his wit’s end, saying that he was “confused and frustrated” by the way that the U.S. government has been behaving of late.

“When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government,” he wrote.

“The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst.”

Now, there are plenty of easy swings to be taken at both Zuckerberg and Facebook on this topic. The humor of the CEO of a company whose business is built upon mining the data it collects from its billions of users and selling the results to advertisers complaining about widespread surveillance is obvious. But there are a couple of clear and important differences between Facebook and the NSA. Facebook is up front about what it is and how it makes money. The user is the product. In return for connecting you electronically to the people you already know so you can avoid talking to them in real life, Facebook shows you marginally relevant ads and gathers untold terabytes of data on user behavior and preferences. That’s called commerce. And users know the deal going in.

What the NSA does is meant to be kept secret and users are not supposed to have any idea whether they’re a target of the agency’s surveillance methods. And in most cases, that’s the way it works. As has been shown, the NSA is extremely good at performing its mission. It’s when the agency goes beyond that mission that things get messy, and that’s what has Zuckerberg and so many others upset right now. A story this week in The Intercept revealed that the agency has allegedly been impersonating a Facebook server as part of a method for attracting surveillance targets and eventually installing malware on their machines. The agency on Thursday denied that impersonates the Web site of any U.S. company.

“NSA does not use its technical capabilities to impersonate U.S. company websites. Nor does NSA target any user of global Internet services without appropriate legal authority. Reports of indiscriminate computer exploitation operations are simply false,” the agency said in a statement.

Many people, corporations and organizations are angry about the allegations surrounding the NSA and its activities, but Zuckerberg, as the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company, has some options for expressing his emotions that aren’t available to most people. For example, calling the White House. Well, anyone can call the White House, but most of us won’t get through to the Oval Office. It’s not clear whether Zuckerberg did, either, but he called.

“I’ve called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform,” he wrote.

“So it’s up to us — all of us — to build the internet we want. Together, we can build a space that is greater and a more important part of the world than anything we have today, but is also safe and secure. I’m committed to seeing this happen, and you can count on Facebook to do our part.”

As name-droppy and petulant as that all may sound, Zuckerberg is right about much of it. True reform, however you’d like to define that, always takes a long time, and that’s especially true when you’re talking about things as important and controversial as national security, surveillance and privacy. People feel a lot of feelings about these topics, and justifiably so. There has been a lot of healthy debate around all of this, and that should continue. But nothing moves quickly in Washington, and changes to the NSA’s mission or priorities won’t be the exception.

More importantly, Zuckerberg is correct that it’s up to us to build the Internet we want. So far, that Internet is a broken, compromised ad platform that’s only good for pictures of kittens and GIFs of dumb celebrities doing dumb things. And that’s fine if that’s the Internet you want. But if you’re interested in something that’s a little more useful and usable and secure, it’s going to take a lot of effort. Security is hard and security at the scale of the Internet has proven to be incredibly hard.

But that doesn’t mean we should cede what ground we’ve gained thus far to governments or attackers or other adversaries. That’s what they’re counting on, and if we give it to them, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Image from Flickr photos of Robert Scoble.

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