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. “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…”

    This is what’s known as doubling down on arrogance and stupidity. Instead of apologizing for their crimes, their only thought is to make sure they don’t get caught again.

    “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.”

    Everywhere I turn, in the many communities on the internet to which I belong, as well as on the street in person, real people are disgusted and outraged. This is serious business.

  2. At least we all now know where all these companies are storing their user’s documents that are being saved to their respective “clouds.” On NSA servers at Fort Meade, Maryland.

  3. For me the basic directives do not present a huge issue. The problem is that individuals lacking ethics can abuse the programs. I see positive attributes in providing tools to for those attempting to thwart terrorist actions. But you have to be able to trust that government respects the lines drawn. The recent IRA and State Dept scandle give little reason to trust. I am not yet ready, however, to scrap these programs. I’ve not yet seen any evidence that the programs have been misused.

    As an aside, this line from the article intolerable:
    ““Take the recent case of Apple’s use of Irish subsidiaries with no tax residency to avoid U.S. taxes…”
    Any operations outside the United States are not required to pay US corporate taxes. Apple reasonably needed an operations nexus in Europe. That they chose Ireland because of advantageous tax laws is irrelevant to Apple’s tax obligations to the US.

    PS– there are many, including me, that would argue that the Church Commission went too far and irreparably damaged CIA. There is no way to know if 9-11 could have been prevented, but it was made obvious through subsequent investigations that the post Church CIA wasn’t capable of gathering the intelligence necessary. Intelligence is necessary and protecting the citizens from foreign intrigue and attacks is the one primary reason for having a federal level of government. I say let them do this job until there is evidence that the data collection is being misused. We give Google Apple Facebook er al this benefit of the doubt every day. .

  4. In business, ‘ethics’ are defined by the law. We know perfectly well that psychopathic incentives will sneak their way into business practices if nothing blocks their way. That’s what law is for.

    And the single most fundamental laws of the USA are simply and clearly spelled out in the US Constitution.

    Therefore, are businesses like Apple, Google and Facebook obliged to follow the US Constitution? DAMNED RIGHT THEY ARE.

    In this case, it at least appears they have all violated the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. We shall see as the details are made evident. For the moment, I’m reading lots of sneaky rhetoric that attempts to skirt around the 4th Amendment but still comes off as a total, traitorous SCAM.

    1. Well Derek, I can’t believe we actually agree with each other.

      All companies, including Apple, are evil filthy scum that lie and manipulate to suck your money from you.

      This is just another layer of bullshit associated with corporations today.

      We need to stop worshipping companies.

      The problem here is that anything that is about National Security is excusable and slathered in secrecy. And the law allows this to be so.

      I don’t think the government has any right to blanket an entire country like this. That this is way, way over the line. This is beyond reasonable to individual people.

      But you’ve even got MDN siding with the Feds. And I’d imagine that’s because Apple is involved! So it must be ok.

      It never ends… the delusion. I keep coming back here because I’m still in disbelief how human beings can be so delusional.

      Guys, gentlemen, ladies: The US government has tapped and monitored every form of modern communication and lied to you about it.

      This is fucking bullshit, and I’m not American nor do I live in the US and have no bias one way or another.

      1. I believe Steve Jobs was the only business leader that I knew of that had the balls to say no to anyone, and stick to doing good business. Camelot is dead, and Apple apparently can’t be trusted anymore.

      2. Going way OT:

        floom, delusion is a vast subject. We’re all, IMHO, self-delusional to some extent. I’ve had conversations with my mother where she has, shockingly, told me she makes herself deliberately delusional when she hears things she doesn’t want to hear. One of those things was all the evidence I presented to her last month that our US government has been illegally spying on We The People for years. She refused to hear me and said so. OMFG.

        Then there is the huge subject of people manipulating and herding one another. For a person with my specific personality, that’s hard to do. I’m manically individualist and celebrate human diversity. But there are plenty who get freaked out by diversity and think everyone should be 1950s little clone units who behave according to some standard someone likes, which science proves is entirely self-destructive in any natural system.

        There are a couple variables in the system as a whole.

        This particular era is driven by stupidity, selfishness, laziness, disrespect and fear-uncertainty-doubt aka good olde FUD. Creative people and companies are treated as objects to parasitize. That’s further self-destructive behavior.

        From my POV, this is very much like the Marketing -As-Management crisis where the crap leaders must be thrown out and replaced with the creative/entrepreneurial leaders or the whole system swirls down the FAIL drain. Apple pulled off the change. Maybe the USA can pull it off too, but not right now! This is a period of revelation where very slowly it is made clear exactly what crimes the blithering idiot leaders have perpetrated.

        IMHO: They day the REAL events of 9/11 are made blatantly clear will be THE turning point OR the last drip down the drain. One or the other. We get to wait and see what happens. There’s one hell of a delusion that the masses don’t want to know about. It’s simply too damned horrifying to face. That day in and of itself generates massive public delusion as well as the incentive to create a lot more.

        That’s at least my POV of the moment. I don’t expect my opinion to make any difference. The best I can do is observe and comment. I don’t particularly care if anyone agrees with my POV or not. That’s part of being me.

        Now back to the show…

    2. Funny, you should read up on “Type-A personalities”;
      high IQ, highly functional and mostly successful in business, but at the same time are boarder line psychopaths.

      What happens when the justice system is run by these “Type-A” people? The means what then?

  5. Also…

    You Americans have to stop supporting all the shit you hate. Don’t like oil? Stop driving get off your ass and bike or walk.

    Don’t like the government: roll back on stuff and reduce your taxable income. Hide assets offshore. Stop supporting the system that’s selling your asses out.

    Your fucking country is a police state of the worst order.

  6. “All companies, including Apple, are evil filthy scum…”

    Companies are not “evil” or “scum”. A corporation is just a concept. All evil and scummy actions are thought about, chosen and implemented by PEOPLE.

    And those people in corporations are no more equally scummy or evil than are all your neighbors. Your neighbors who rape their children, beat their wives or murder people are not equal to the people whose most “evil” actions have been stealing a pad of paper from work.

    It is not useful, in thinking about the state of the world and what to do about it, to paint all people in corporations as equally evil.

    1. Seamus, you make distinction without difference. Corporations are the legal constructs that allow the leaders of those organizations to wash their hands of all liability and all risk. The leaders of these organizations are almost ALWAYS drunk on their unfettered power, not unlike feudal lords of centuries ago. Nothing has changed even with the sham of a “democracy” in place, because the people are not represented. Only the rich and powerful and connected are in control. Thanks to fear- and greed-mongering, they are very successful at keeping the populace under the delusion that abundant cheap disposable plastic consumer crap and oversized gas-guzzling pickups are “freedom”. Meanwhile unelected and unaccountable corporate leaders — who are indeed mostly filthy scum — are able to take any resources they wish, pollute wherever they want, control legislation, and move resources and people wherever they want — all without public input whatsoever. A CEO can do practically anything at all and get away with it.

      Sadly, it is readily apparent that Apple has grown into just another corporation. Sure, it still delivers a lot of what people want in computing products, but don’t think for a second that it doesn’t do everything the NSA is doing and more. It knows everything they want to know about you, where you go, and who you know. Why? Because you blindly trusted them with all your data. What could be better than an iCloud great for sucking up & mining personal data?

      1. Mike,
        I’m not arguing with a lot of what you say — e.g. that the sheeple spend their lives in a desparate race to buy more and more crap, thinking that will make them happy, and so on. Nor am I arguing against the evilness and scummyness of many of the ultra rich.

        I am arguing with blanket statements like:
        – “All companies, including Apple, are evil filthy scum…”
        – “The leaders of these organizations are almost ALWAYS drunk on their unfettered power”
        – “who are indeed mostly filthy scum”

        Do you actually know any corporate leaders, or just come into personal contact with them? I do. Many are just regular folks who own substantial businesses. They don’t pollute any more than any of us do. They don’t control legislation. Large numbers of corporate leaders simply do not have the connections and clout to have that kind of influence.
        So maybe you and others are talking about the small number of mega-rich, mega-powerful corporate leaders who do have that kind of influence. Based on what we can see, such people are predominantly and pathologically greedy – scummy and evil. But if that is who you are talking about, please stop saying “All corporate leaders” and “All corporations”.

        And I contend again – the world is not binary. “All corporate leaders bad”. Workers and micro-business owners have no greater share of nobility and altruism than many corporate leaders. And many of the “lower rungs” are just as scummy and evil as the corporate leaders and would do exactly the same if given control.

        And lastly, the leaders of Apple, and Dell, HP, Cisco, Intel and, yes, even Microsoft, are not equal to the evil scum who have knowingly killed millions of people with their death sticks. (cigarettes)

        1. Since it was me that said all companies are filthy scum….

          We’re playing with words here. Yes, companies are made up of people but as Mike illustrated, a company is an institution that facilitates and fosters the greed and selfishness predicated on PEOPLE. Without it, an individual person just doesn’t have the facility to realize their filthy scumness on the order of companies.

          For instance, Apple enslaves tens of thousands of people to make their products. So do other companies. I buy their products knowing this and I also take some responsibility in the continued existence of that shit. But at the end of the day companies are by definition so driven by profit they simply act like filthy scum sucking greedy fuckheads at the expense of PEOPLE.

          Tim Cook and other Apple execs each pulling in tens of millions a year. The inequalities that exist today and the priorities that we set are alarming.

          People are being sickened and destroyed by cancer yet Silicon Valley gives kids $35 million to make an App that allows people to send cartoon heads to each other.

          We’re pretty fucked up as a society and companies are even more fucked up, including the government.

          I’m sick odf all the corruption. No excuses. No bullshit. The shit has to stop. It has to end. The greed and thirst for power must end.

  7. The whole thing is pretty simple: use Facebook, Apple & Google for everyday productivity things like work, coaching activities etc., don’t use them for anything you don’t want anyone to see or know. Because they’re reading it and so is the Govt. Thats why IBM doesn’t let anyone use iCloud, for example, because they know Apple & others are rummaging through it. Not necessarily for their trade secrets, yet, but that can change in a second by some VP who wants to make a name for him/herself.

  8. While this level of data mining is disturbing it should be hardly surprising. We the people made this level of concession after 9/11 in our need for a feeling of safety. Since 9/11 we have been unwilling relinquish any of that false since of security and accept that we cannot hold the government completely responsable for any failure to protect us, while also respecting all of our suposed freedoms. Personally I am willing to give up some of that security for my freedom but I do understand that there is a tradeoff. I am more concerned with googles massive data mining in order to sell me for more money.

  9. I’d say if you want total privacy then you can’t even be born. Because the minute you are born you are identified and your information is stored and collected. That’s the only way you will ever not have your info used some where else at any point in time. Privacy is an illusion in the modern world especially if you go near the internet. Also if you want our government to protect us from terrorists and not have Boston a thousand times over I wouldn’t worry to much unless you are one of those terrorists. The government doesn’t care about what you do unless you are one of those terrorists. I think that’s what Obama is trying to tell the American people.

    1. This war of terrorism is probably just a big lie that the puppet masters want us to believe so as to impose control & remove ability to dissent, the goal of any communist or fascist dictatorship. Sure there are crazies in the world, but not even a 1984 martial law state will stop that. After all, everyone is crazy.

  10. In the Nuremberg trials, it was said: ” If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

    1. Wz:

      You’re too rational for people here. The Nurmberg quote about the state lying to people where people think it’s the truth is bang on. This is part of the delusion. And it happens with companies too. I read a book about Jobs and Apple from the 80s that talked about how Jobs learned about Nazi brainwashing techniques.

      This sounds worse than it is: It’s been widely studied and discussed to the point where there’s schools of thought around it.

      This is what’s delusional. Apple lies and lies and you believe them. Microsoft lies and lies and MS fanboys believe them.

      From Apple’s stock dating scandal, to their tax havens… to their blatant lying about it and a bunch of other shit… they’re fucked. But there’re just like every other company.

      We need change. But it’ll never happen in this economic and political system.

      1. Thanks for the compliment. I have to put myself as one of those fanboys that loved Apple products, and believed Steve Jobs had integrity, unlike current leadership it seems from this Prism scandal. Don’t want that wonderful iWatch because of this. I agree psychology is a common tool for companies and countries. Vance Packard said, “The most common characteristic of all police states is intimidation by surveillance. Citizens know they are being watched and overheard. Their mail is being examined. Their homes can be invaded.”

  11. Also said there was: “Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, 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, or a fascist dictatorship, or 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.”

  12. The problem with email technology, imo, is that it should have been named something along the lines of e-post card. After all, hindsight has shown that naming electronic message technology after snail mail has confused a lot of computer users who don’t know how computers work, such users understandably but mistakenly thinking that email is as free from prying eyes as snail mail is.

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