PRISM: Do Apple, Google, Facebook have an ethical obligation not to spy on users?

“Many Americans are outraged at the government for mining user data from Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants,” Christopher Flavelle writes for Bloomberg. “What about the actions of the companies themselves — have they met their ethical obligations to their customers and society as a whole? Do they even have any?”

The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency collects data ‘directly from the servers’ of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple,” Flavelle writes. “While some companies issued carefully worded denials of involvement, it’s hard to imagine they were unaware of the arrangement, however they choose to describe it.”

“Assuming that the companies found the program an infringement on our liberties, could they have declined to provide the government the information it requested? Ultimately, probably not; it seems unlikely they would have met the requests had they not faced a legal obligation to comply,” Flavelle writes. “But legal and ethical obligations aren’t necessarily the same thing.”

Flavelle writes, “Take the recent case of Apple’s use of Irish subsidiaries with no tax residency to avoid U.S. taxes; the tactics may be legally sound, but ethically dubious. Now turn that around: If companies are willing to go to such lengths to get around U.S. tax law, is it too much to ask that they apply the same creativity to avoiding the surrender of their customers’ private information? In Apple’s case, that may have happened. Apple looks to have resisted the government’s requests for years. What does that say about other companies, which complied more quickly: Are they better corporate citizens, or worse? … maybe it’s time to revisit what it means for a company to be a good corporate citizen, and whether that includes acting as a check on the government when no one else can.”

Read more in the full article here.

Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland report for Reuters, “‘In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,’ Obama said, noting that a secret federal court reviews requests for surveillance and that Congress is briefed on such activity.”

MacDailyNews Take: Collecting information on trillions of phone calls and internet communications, is “the right balance?”

Spetalnick and Holland report, “‘You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,’ Obama said. ‘We’re going to have to make some choices as a society… There are trade-offs involved.'”

MacDailyNews Take: You can’t have 100 percent security. Period. (See: 2013 Boston Marathon finish line.)

As for “trade-offs:”
They who would trade essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. — Benjamin Franklin (paraphrased)

Spetalnick and Holland report, “U.S. law enforcement and security officials said the government was likely to open a criminal investigation into the leaking of the highly classified documents on the programs to the Post and Guardian… Obama’s administration was already embroiled in other privacy controversies involving the searches of telephone records for Associated Press reporters and the phone records and emails of a Fox News reporter as part of leak investigations. Those controversies, along with a scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny and questions about the handling of last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, have cast a cloud over Obama’s second term.”

“The relationship between the government’s surveillance program and the internet companies remained murky on Friday,” Spetalnick and Holland report. “Some of the companies named by the Post – Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook – denied that the government was able to tap directly into their central servers, as the newspaper reported… The statements from the technology companies seemed to suggest the government had gone to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain orders to force cooperation from some or all of the internet companies.”

The Washington Post said the surveillance program involving internet firms, code-named PRISM and established under Republican President George W. Bush in 2007, had seen ‘exponential growth’ under Obama, a Democrat. It said the NSA increasingly relied on PRISM as a source of raw material for daily intelligence reports to the president,” Spetalnick and Holland report. “Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, called the program ‘deeply disturbing’ and beyond what should be constitutionally acceptable. ‘It is a huge gathering of information by the federal government. The argument that it protects national security is unpersuasive,’ he said.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: PRISMOrwellian.

Via The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

The Obama administration is defending this surveillance. A senior official in the Administration stated that these programs “comply with the Constitution” and “appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.”

They’re wrong.

It’s time for a full accounting of America’s secret spying programs—and an end to unconstitutional surveillance.

When the government was caught spying on American citizens in the 1960s and 70s, Congress created the Church Committee to right the government’s wrongs. Recommendations from that commission resulted in legal reforms that ensured judicial oversight of surveillance programs. Congress must act in a similar fashion and create a 21st Century Church Committee and enact strong legislation to rein in the Executive Branch and protect our communications.

For far too long, secret law and a secret surveillance state have been a dark specter on Americans’ freedom. It’s time to shine a light on NSA’s spying.

Join EFF in calling for a full investigation here.

United States Constitution, Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Related articles:
Plausible deniability: The strange and unbelievable similarities in the Apple, Google, and Facebook PRISM denials – June 7, 2013
Google’s Larry Page on government eavesdropping: ‘We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday’ – June 7, 2013
Seecrypt app lets iPhone, Android users keep voice calls, text messages away from carriers, government eyes and ears – June 7, 2013
Obama administration defends PRISM data-collection as legal anti-terrorism tool – June 7, 2013
Facebook, Google, Yahoo join Apple in sort-of denying PRISM involvement – June 7, 2013
Report: Intelligence program gives U.S. government direct access to customer data on Apple servers; Apple denies – June 6, 2013


  1. The head of the NSA program was ‘disgusted’ by the revelation of this program, claiming that all sorts of harm was done. The fact is that the best of independent developers, whether good or evil, are ALWAYS smarter than the military or the spooks. The brightest people don’t want to listen to some bird colonel telling them what to do.

    This means that the bad people with the greatest interest in the program have long figured out how it works. The only people the secret is kept from are ordinary American citizens. It’s true that most people hand over much more information to Google, et al, than they really know. They may continue to do it, but they have the right to know just what can happen with that data.

    There are lots of people on this board already writing up their Obama complaints, but this goes back a lot farther than that. We really handed over the keys with the Patriot Act, as unconstitutional a piece of crap as there ever was. The nation whined “Daddy keep me safe”, without understanding the consequences of that childish plea.

    1. If the parliament ever cared about constitution, they would impeach both Bush and Obama (though the latter would be unnecessary since he would never dare to crash fourth and fifth amendments the way he did).

      But, of course, congressmen and senators do not represent their voters at all, so there is no way Bush and Obama could be impeached.

      Leader of Free world, my ass.

  2. These companies, all of them, don’t collect our information for fun. They’re using it for themselves and or selling it. Not that it’s illegal or immoral but not necessarily in our best interest. Apple has 500 million credit card users information. That’s where they will make their money in the future not in hardware or software. Google collects everything it can on us. If you’re dumb enough to use it. Same for Microsoft, eBay, Facebook etc. It’s business. Big business. And let’s face it, if you use any of them you should understand that this is what happens to your information. Unless you just fell off the turnip truck. They don’t have much choice but to open up to the federal government. It’s out of their control. These companies can spin it any way they want but the bottom line is when big brother knocks on the door you’d better open the door. And then there’s Facebook! Facebook takes everything you’ve got. And people are so stupid that they share everything on Facebook. I don’t get it? And the rest of the social media is just as bad but not quite as large. If you use social media you deserve to be hacked. But you know that. You really can survive without it.

    1. You only deserve to be hacked if you put everything onto social media. The only personal info that goes onto Fb and Twitter is my name, and the town I live in. My email address has been hacked, but not through social media, instead through Yahoo’s insecure email system, which is used by British Telecom. They have now ditched Yahoo after a deluge of complaints.
      So it goes.

      1. But that’s all they need. They can follow everything you do. Who your contact. Your friends. Your likes. Your dislikes. Probably your location and history of movement. Etc.

  3. The real scary thing is the stuff that is going on that we don’t know about. We are all just sheeple and the government does what it wants, when it wants privacy be damned. If you think otherwise, you are a naive fool.

  4. What did we expect would happen with the “Patriot Act” in effect. Congress made this possible. Each administration simply is interpreting the nuances of the law and using it to respond to changing terrorist threats as needed. Personally, I’ll give up a little privacy to keep the bad guys in check, but my level of trust for a given administration’s use of the technogy will ebb and flow. Generally, I’d choose to trust over-reaching Democrats rather than over-reaching Republicans, but that’s just me.

    The news of this use of spy tech is a reminder of how important it is to have a free press though, and a watchdog that keeps us informed of government activities. After all, there is is no NSA for citizens, only national and local daily newspapers. So, support your favorite newspaper, even if most are failing to adopt technology fast enough to remain relevant in today’s hyper-connected online world. We need them — except maybe for the Chicsgo Sun-Times, which just foolishly layed off all their professional photojournalists. What stupid, short-sighted executives. They are gonna regret this when the real AppleTV arrives and Apps become the new TV channels. Dopes.

    1. Why would you “choose to trust over-reaching Democrats rather than over-reaching Republicans” when PRISM saw “‘exponential growth’ under Obama, a Democrat?”

      1. Because he, like so many, has been brainwashed by the corrupt U.S. mainstream media. At least back when the U.S. media pretended to be impartial, Republicans had a chance to deliver their message relatively unfettered to low information voters.

    2. You’ll give up a little privacy to keep the bad guys in check? You trust Democrats over Republicans? Dude you clearly don’t get it. What do you think, that the Democrats will be in charge of the White House forever? You think you can repeal the Patriot Act when Obama’s on his way out of office and then put it on ice for the next Dem president? That’s not the way it works, dawg. You either give them the power or you don’t. And once they have the power, it becomes permanent and ripe for abuse regardless whether a D or an R sits next to the president’s name.

      And why would you trust a Democrat when Obama is the one who’s expanded and abused these programs beyond Bush’s wildest dreams?

    3. Newspapers are indeed important. Sad to say things don’t look good for them however. People under 30 are not used to reading a newspaper every day. It’s not just jobs that will be going away but investigative reporting. Reporters do the work that the police can’t do. They can look into problems in depth. And generally are unbiased. Who will do that when newspapers are gone? An online newspaper? Not hardly. The same goes for newsmagazines. Newsweek, Time Magazine, US News and World Report etc. Think of all the in-depth investigations that they have done in the past. No more. Local television news and network news will be downsized also. There is no one to take their places. I have to admit though I’m not sure how AppleTV and apps tie in with the demise of newspapers? But I certainly agree with your outlook on the demise of a free press.

  5. There is no government. What we have is essentially nothing more than interlocking criminal enterprises acting under the color of government. Lying, spying and killing to further the theft is all just par for the course. Nothing will change until the criminal leadership is purged, prosecuted and imprisoned or executed. Then it will start all over as sociopaths weasel their way back into power. Without an active screening process to keep sociopaths out of education, government, military and law enforcement we will be trapped into living again and again these dystopian revelations.

    1. Except it’s not “criminal”, because they say what is criminal and what is not.
      E.g. you not paying your taxes is criminal: some of them killing millions of people with a product they KNEW was doing so is not criminal.

  6. Now we see why the Department of Defense dragged its feet so long in getting the iPhone and iPad approved for government use. They were hanging it as a two ton bargaining chip over Tim’s head. Had he not caved last year, iOS would still be frozen out.

  7. We should never allow this until there is a terrotist attack so we can scream (as we did after the Boston Marathon attack ) “Why didn’t the government know about these guys?

    1. Freedom comes with many prices. Terrorism is one of them. If you want to be safer from terrorism, I suggest we cut the politically correct bullshit and begin correcting what’s wrong with Islam.

      Why does Islam create so many Islamic terrorist murderers?

      Find out and work on that obvious problem, don’t tread all over my 4th Amendment rights.

      1. How about correcting what’s wrong with Christianity while you’re at it? You think Islam is the only major philosophy/religion with ties to terrorism? Your head is buried so deep in the sand you’ll never see the light if that’s your thinking.

        1. Dear Islamic Apologist Asshole and Terrorism Supporter,

          When the last umpteen major terrorist bombings are due to a bunch of Catholic nuns, we’ll deal with them accordingly.

          Until then, like over a dozen 2013 Boston Marathoners, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

          1. Calling you an idiot would denigrate idiots. Think about what militant Christians have done in the name of Jesus. Or antityrrany. Clinic and church bombings, murders, etc. everyone in the AB and KKK claims to be a Christian. You are a right wing zealot which is pretty much the definition of a legless ideological moron. Peace!

            1. I’m living in the here and now, not centuries years ago. The problem today is obviously one of Islamic Extremism. Solve that problem instead of wiping your ass with the U.S. Constitution.

            2. The AB (and many others like them) are the here and now. Read something other than your own right wing press clippings. Preferably something that takes longer than the average dump to complete.

              And get an education. Something beyond the 8th grade and that doesn’t entail creationism.

            3. I already am very highly educated. Therefore, I will educate you:

              Sunni Muslim terrorists committed about 70% of the 12,533 terrorist murders in the world in 2011, according to the “2013 edition of the Counterterrorism (CT) Calendar” report by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

              According to NCTC, of the 12,533 terrorism-related deaths worldwide, 8,886 were perpetrated by “Sunni extremists,” 1,926 by “secular/political/anarchist” groups, 1,519 by “unknown” factions, 170 by a category described as “other”, and 77 by “Neo-Nazi/Fascist/White Supremacist” groups.

              Al-Qaida (AQ) and its affiliates, considered to be Sunni extremists, were “responsible for at least 688 attacks that resulted in almost 2,000 deaths'” The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also comprised of Sunni extremists, “conducted over 800 attacks that resulted in nearly 1,900 deaths.”

              “More than half [6,418] of the people killed in 2011 were civilians and 755 were children.”

              Your education continues here:

              Thanks for playing. Enjoy your parting gifts. A new pressure cooker is not among them.

        2. The problem is we use the word ‘terrorism’ relatively freely and often we don’t understand all of the motivations.

          I would argue that much of what happened in the former Yugoslavia (such as the carnage in Sarajevo) was – to an extent – terrorism, because it involved indiscriminate paramilitary warfare against a civilian population and used rules of engagement that didn’t comply with the accepted rules of warfare; in that instance, the protagonists of one week were the antagonists of another and the motivations had both a cultural and religious dimension, pitting Catholic southern Slav (Croatian) against Orthodox southern Slav (Serbian) against Muslim southern Slav (Bosniak).

          In Burma (or Myanmar, as I will get used to typing sometime before I die), you can see terror being deployed by the Buddhist majority against a Muslim minority who are now creating a refugee crisis in Thailand.

          And then there are various tribal/religious conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa where people claiming to be guardians of a Christian culture or a Muslim culture engage in behaviour that shames both of them.

          The problem is that ‘2014/2016′ is applying a simplistic set of rules to define a single enemy as it applies to the United States, whereas the reality is that there are numerous multi-layered ethnic/religious internecine conflicts throughout the world that have the potential to create significant regional repercussions that, because of the US’ high-profile position, can have implications for America’s foreign policy and its domestic security.

          1. you might add that trying to impose “democracy” on tribal patriarchal systems has been a fools errand since the dawn of time. why would the local lord want to allow a government over him to collect tax and usurp authority? imagine the results if we declared war on another tribal patriarchal society, the american mafia. we bomb Brooklyn and move in the troops. first the demo and garbage haulers have a field day then the construction trades get their turn all the while those little old men sipping coffee in front of the clubs are collecting the profits from the soldiers gambling and fooling around with the disreputable ladies hanging around the docks and drug sales . the terrorists make out better than the “winners” “mission accomplished!” A good example of the herding cats nature of tribal patriarchal societies would be Yasser Arafat, every time he got 9 tribes to agree one would blow something up to put the talks back to square one. terrorisim has to be a police matter military intervention can not work against a committed guerrilla force.

      2. dear first please read where your ideology springs from in the fo;;owing quote from the republican playbook that wasted 5000 kids on the last of the stupid wars we have fought continuously since 1812

        “ It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a parliament or
        a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
        Hermann Goering, Nuremberg Trials

          1. the whole point of a terrorist attack is to scare us into hyper vigilance .exhaust our resources and cause us to become what we are protecting ourselves from. the department of homeland security ,the military industrial complex are draining resources from places where they are sorely needed . when police surround a house the first thing they do is exploit the subjects paranoia by waiting and harassing until the subject is exhausted. in Boston the POLICE reacted to an actual incident and quickly brought the perpetrators to justice. we did not send an army in to blow up the Boston infrastructure and send a bunch of mercenaries in to shoot suspected citizens.drink vodka out of their behinds, imprison ,torture and otherwise detain people waste countless billions just to protect your sorry derrière from all possible harm in all possible situations .life has risk my friend you are being told you are under attack by everybody else but you black brown or yellow and you swallow that hook line and sinker .show you a picture of a truck with a badly lettered label “chemical weapons lab” and start the invasion of a sovereign country (with no real plan and not proper equipment) we learned in viet nam that holding territory is moot we learned in the civil war sword and pike tactics don’t work against guns yet we did it again in world war one .lets protect ourselves by stopping the continuous attacks on others and realize there is no honor in being at war for all but 35 years of this countries existence. how many bombs have gone off in switzerland? if you wear that elephant button you probably consider your self a good citizen how can you believe in the rule of law and allow what is going on at the same time
            “All pigs are created equal but some are more equal than others ” George Orwell

  8. Time to be honest.

    Only Apple is not selling user data to others. But Facebook and Googles Profits are at home here. And that is no secret.

    I guess Apples Reputation is one key value for their market success. Selling user data to others would also blow it.

    But I am sure they are using it to tweak the services, applications and hardware.
    Of course also Apple is a company that has to compete with others. But the philosophy is totally different from Larry’s or Marks Data Collection and Sell Out.

    Ask yourself: What would happen if Google stops selling user data and field results ?
    At least Facebook is not mandatory to use.
    But if you block Google in your browser, there is a lot of content that is blocked as well. Thats what I think is a real bad attitude ! Don’t you think ?

      1. They use it as I described. If they give it away to competitors or their allies, it would weaken their own position. It just does not make sense to Apple to sell user data t others. They keep it to tweak their Integrated (but sometimes fenced) environment.

        I was thinking about buying a Sony Xperia Z, but Android is a mess imo.

    1. and use cash not credit

      use an alias to your email account
      lie about your age
      fake your resume
      credentials are worthless
      identity thief is common
      ideas and personalities are precious

      anonymity rules

  9. I have a server at my place of business but I rely on several outside “third parties” (big corporations) for things like e-mail, calendars syncing, etc. I do this out of convenience, basically.

    What this tells me is that I may have to consider turning on more of my server’s services and manage that all myself. And it’s not because I have a single thing to hide. It’s the principal of the matter. If I’m under investigation, then they get a real warrant and come seize my data. But at least they won’t be able to do it in secret and in a big batch with everyone else’s stuff.

    I just don’t see how this won’t be an abused power, and the idea of secret courts is so damned out of whack with American ideals.

    1. Actually, the Patriot Act does allow it to be done in secret even to the extent of forbidding you from divulging that you are the target of an investigation (cf. National Security Letters).

      That MDN quote from Franklin is one of my favourites. But Franklin also believed that “confusion engendered” with political parties.

  10. What surprises me the most is that people are surprised about this. I thought it was common knowledge that all cell phone, internet, and email communications are intercepted and processed by the NSA, DARPA, and/or other US government agencies. I wasn’t asleep during the Patriot Act, I kept up with news on the NSA, and I read 1984 in High School.

    If you want to communicate privately, either go low tech or use very effective encryption – anything you blabber over a cell phone or over the internet can and will be intercepted by government agencies. Wire tapping is basically legal with the Patriot Act, and much of communication data is literally airborne – what’s one good reason to assume the person on the other line is the only one listening in?

    1. I’m with you. I don’t believe there are many people out there who don’t understand this. It’s just a good talking point. Consider Cubs fans. They can’t talk about baseball so they have to talk about something.

    2. The Patriot act needs to be repealed.
      Mr Bush made comment on camera that his job would be easier if this were a dictatorship, and he the dictator.
      Truth in jest.

    3. Quite.

      The ECHELON network has existed for many years and has been used to spy on countries which are, ostensibly, the allies of the United States and the other partners in the network. Admittedly, those ‘allies’ also spied on their ‘allies’.

      The only thing that has changed is that ECHELON was designed to pluck conversations out of the ether, because everything used to be voice-based and was carried internationally by satellite and microwave.

      Now, communication is multi-layered (SMS, instant messaging/chat, phones that you can buy with cash without providing identity, etc) and is carried long-haul over fiber. What did people think the NSA was going to do? Shut down and run a softball league for retired sigint spooks?

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