Net Threats: Deteriorating Trust in Governments and Corporations

July 15, 2014
No Comment

By Shannon Perry

Reflecting the increasing attention paid to information security by many Americans, Pew Research recently conducted a large study, “Net Threats”, to identify important trends among technology experts’ opinions and predictions regarding the future of digital security. The study targeted thousands of Internet experts to measure their thoughts and concerns about the future of the Internet. Researchers at Pew identified four major themes among responses, and this post will discuss the second theme – Trust will evaporate in the wake of revelations about government and corporate surveillance and likely greater surveillance in the future.

Few topics have received more attention from technologists and security experts than Edward Snowden and the information that he leaked about the National Security Administration. The public backlash against the NSA and its collection of big data has been widespread and long-lasting, and revelations have continued to unfold – further undermining public trust vis-à-vis governmental surveillance.

The recent Reset the Net campaign illustrates this spread of distrust within the United States. Reset the Net was an anti-surveillance protest in early June that was supported by heavyweights like the ACLU, Google, and Amnesty International. The campaign encouraged Internet users to adopt privacy tools, implored programmers to “protect territories” of the Internet, and asked developers to add NSA-resistant features to applications. Although the impact of Reset the Net is difficult to quantify, its influential supporters indicate a sizable anti-government sentiment among American companies and organizations.

Responding to pressure from constituents, lawmakers in Washington have taken action as well. Legislation from the House of Representatives in early May sought to terminate the intelligence community’s collection of American phone and business data. While some maintain that the bill is largely perfunctory, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the measure, which suggests that American disapproval of the NSA’s data collection is fairly widespread. Moreover, the American public seems to consider Edward Snowden a “whistleblower” as opposed to a “traitor”, which evidences the extent of domestic discomfort with the agency’s practices.

With the bulk of media attention focused on the NSA and with intentional efforts to minimize the perceived extent of surveillance by companies, distrust stemming from corporate surveillance is harder to measure. The Federal Trade Commission published a report this May examining trends among data brokers within the United States, and the Commission found that data brokers possess massive quantities of information about nearly every American citizen. The report states that the metadata offers massive challenges and opportunities for both individuals and corporations, with the information presenting a particular threat to individual privacy. Still, real American sentiment regarding corporate surveillance is not well-documented.

And the response to the NSA revelations was not limited to American soil. Following the release that our intelligence community kept tabs on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama and the United States suddenly found itself trying to remedy a cooling relationship with Germany, one of our closest European allies. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil was another spying target, in a revelation that undermined Brazil-United States relations.

Respondents in the Pew study predict that the divide between individuals and the government and corporations will grow in the future; the last year’s string of revelations will likely continue into the foreseeable future, and each revelation will undermine American trust in governments and in corporations. America’s relationships with other nation-states and its reputation in the international community may also be affected by future revelations.

According to the report, as the capabilities of and motivations for metadata collection will increase, future revelations are almost inevitable, and they will cause trust in some of our largest governments and companies to deteriorate.