This morning’s Observer column.
As they burgeoned, the big internet companies looked with disdain on the leviathans of the military-industrial complex. Kinetic warfare seemed so yesterday to those whose corporate mantras were about “not being evil” and adhering to “the hacker’s way”. So when Snowden revealed NSA claims that the spooks had untrammelled access to their servers the companies reacted like nuns accused of running a webcam porn site. It wasn’t true, they protested, and even it if was they knew nothing about it. Of course they did comply with government requests approved by a secret court, but that was the extent of it. As the months rolled by, however, this reassuring narrative has unravelled. We discovered that the NSA and GCHQ had indeed covertly tapped the data-traffic that flows between the companies’ server farms. But since Google and co were – they claimed – unaware of this, perhaps their protestations of innocence seemed justified. More embarrassing were the revelations about the astonishing lengths to which one company (Microsoft) went to facilitate NSA access to its users’ private communications.
Last Wednesday, another piece of the jigsaw slotted into place. The NSA’s top lawyer stated unequivocally that the technology firms were fully aware of the agency’s widespread collection of data. Rajesh De, the NSA general counsel, said that all communications content and associated metadata harvested by the NSA occurred with the knowledge of the companies – both for the Prism system and the covert tapping of communications moving across the internet.