Rentacops on desktops: Edward Snowden's dismissal of Surveillance Valley is wrong, and dangerous

By Yasha Levine , written on December 30, 2013

From The News Desk

There's been no shortage of dissection and parsing of Edward Snowden's interview with the Washington Post's Barton Gellman.

One detail that hasn't received very much attention, though, is Snowden's apparently cavalier and dismissive attitude towards private, for-profit surveillance by Silicon Valley companies.

The way that Gellman tells it, when probed on his opinion of private surveillance, Snowden acknowledged that advances in Internet technology have allowed private companies to spy, track and surveil Americans on an unprecedented scale. But ultimately, Snowden shrugged off the dangers posed by for-profit espionage. The reason? Because private companies don't have the power to arrest, jail or kill people. "Twitter doesn’t put warheads on foreheads,” Snowden joked.

Snowden's position is perfectly in keeping with the anti-government, pro-corporate politics we've seen growing up around his leaks. Unfortunately his position is also wrong — plainly and dangerously wrong.

Snowden can joke about Twitter all he wants -- and it's clear he was going for laughs over facts by choosing Twitter as his example of a private Silicon Valley company rather than citing, say, Peter Thiel's Palantir, which we know produces software that assists US forces in the targeting of insurgents (disclosure: Thiel is an investor in Pando, through Founders Fund).

The fact is that, even setting aside powerful private defense contractors — like the one Snowden worked for before he defected to Russia -- plenty of plain ol' tech companies do have to power to take away "life and freedom."  I'm talking about the biggest Surveillance Valley megacorps that are known to willingly — and at times proactively and voluntarily — turn over intel on users that gets people put away behind bars, and sometimes beaten and tortured.

For the clearest examples of that behavior, look no further than eBay and Yahoo.

A few weeks ago, my Pando colleague Mark Ames reported that eBay — the company founded and chaired by Pierre Omidyar, the patron saint of Edward Snowden's NSA secrets — runs its own global private spook army, which routinely hands over user data to law enforcement on a "silver platter." And much of the time, the people eBay turns over to the cops haven't even been accused of a crime.

Here's how Ames describe's eBay's policing and detention efforts:

[eBay] not only complies with requests from government agencies for user data but proudly boasts of doing so proactively, often without formal warrants or subpoenas.

From its earliest days, eBay has operated a vast trans-national private police force which has overseen thousands of arrests and convictions around the globe, has trained countless thousands of law enforcement officials in the US and abroad, and cooperates with police and intelligence agencies on every inhabitable continent.

Last year, eBay’s longtime Chief Internet Security Officer, David Culliname, told an audience of top private security executives that eBay’s global security operations led to the arrests of 3,000 people around the world over a period of three years — or roughly three people arrested per day, thanks to eBay’s work.

...eBay works closely with a variety of federal agencies, including the FBI, Homeland Security, and the DEA. In 2007, eBay spokesperson Nichola Sharpe told the AP, “We’ve been working with the Drug Enforcement Agency as far back as 2006. People buy items that are completely harmless — law enforcement can look at that and see it’s suspicious.”

According to a DEA agent from the Rocky Mountain Field division, Mike Tuner, working with eBay offered certain legal advantages. To search a person’s home, the DEA would need a court-ordered subpoena or warrant, but to search the suspect’s business information and behavior on eBay, the DEA only required an administrative subpoena, which eBay ensured would be easy to obtain. You read that right: eBay's extensive user surveillance, combined with a proactive and friendly "no warrants" policy for turning over private user data to law enforcement, means eBay is responsible for the arrests of three people per day — everyday. (If you're doing the math at home: that's over 200 people arrested thanks to eBay since Omidyar announced the formation of NewCo in October 2013.)

But eBay isn't the most dangerous Surveillance Valley company to hand your data to. A front runner for that title might be Yahoo.

The company entered the Chinese market in 1999 but began expanding its presence there in earnest in 2002, after Google started gobbling up its domestic search traffic and the company saw its stock bottom out at miserable $9.00 a share from a high of $118.75 just a year earlier. "Yahoo had to do something, and the Chinese market looked to be the future," wrote Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu in "Who Controls the Internet?"

That Chinese market meant a lot to Yahoo's bottom line, and it was willing to do just about anything to shore up its business. Anything including helping China's repressive state security apparatus track down and arrest suspected political dissidents — including people who did nothing other than post a few innocuous criticisms of Chinese authorities on the Internet.

It was a loathsome practice. Yahoo's lack of scruples, and the eagerness with which the company helped track these people down, earned it the nickname of "Chinese police informant" from Reporters Without Borders.

One of the few examples that made headlines in the West was in 2002, when Yahoo helped the track down a dissident by the name of Wang Xiaoning, who made the unfortunate decision to use the company's mail and newsgroup account to post a message advocating for open elections, a multi-party system and the separation of powers. Xiaoning thought that because Yahoo was a foreign company and out of reach of the Chinese government, his anonymity would be protected. He was wrong.

Yahoo promptly turned over the intel requested by Chinese authorities and a squad of cops descended on Xiaoning's apartment in Beijing. After a quick trial, Xiaoning was found guilty of inciting subversion and sentenced to 10 years in a hard labor camp, where he says he was beaten and tortured by prison authorities.

Yahoo did exactly the same thing again in 2003, turning over data on a user named Li Zhi, whose crime was to criticize the corruption of local officials on a Yahoo newsgroup. Li Zhi was sentenced to eight years in prison. It happened again in 2004, when Yahoo helped the Chinese government catch Shi Tao, a journalist who used his Yahoo account to email a communist party memorandum that instructed Chinese journalists to refrain from covering the then-upcoming 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. The document provided clear evidence that China was suppressing media coverage of the events — and the authorities were none too pleased that this "state secret" had been leaked to the West. Like Xiaoning, Tao was arrested and sentenced to ten years of hard labor, where he endured torture and beatings — all thanks to Yahoo.

When Yahoo's relationship with Chinese authorities became public, the company claimed that it had no idea that China had sought information on people who committed political crimes. And anyway, Yahoo CEO and founder Jerry Yang (a native of Taiwan), argued that the company had a responsibility to comply with foreign laws and regulations.

In 2006, Christopher Smith, Republican Representative from New Jersey, chaired a series of hearings on the role that Silicon Valley companies — including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco — play in helping China repress its citizens.

Rep. Smith went for the jugular:

"Tragically, history shows us that American companies and their subsidiaries have provided the technology to crush human rights in the past. Edwin Black’s book, IBM and the Holocaust, reveals the dark story of IBM’s strategic alliance with Nazi Germany. Thanks to IBM’s enabling technologies, from programs for identification and cataloging to the use of IBM’s punch card technology, Hitler and the Third Reich were able to automate the genocide of the Jews.

"...Yahoo! said that it must adhere to local laws in all countries where it operates. But my response to that is, if the secret police, a half century ago, asked where Anne Frank was hiding, would the correct answer be to hand over the information in order to comply with local laws?

"Again, these are not victimless crimes that the Chinese secret police are committing, and I believe we must stand with the oppressed and not with the oppressors.

"...for the sake of market share and profits, leading U.S. companies, like Google, Yahoo!, Cisco, and Microsoft, have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens. They have, indeed, aided and abetted the Chinese regime to prop up both of these pillars, secret police and propaganda, propagating the message of the dictatorship unabated and supporting the secret police in a myriad of ways, including surveillance and invasion of privacy, in order to effectuate the massive crackdown on its citizens." Yahoo tried playing dumb. But it didn't work. Internal corporate correspondence eventually revealed that company executives had lied to Congress about not knowing that their company had helped Chinese authorities track down and catch people for political "crimes" — crimes that weren't really crimes at all, but which they very well understood would be brutally punished and repressed.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held another hearing a year later, grilling Yahoo's CEO Yang and the company's chief counsel Mike Callahan for giving false testimony to the committee. Chairman Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, chewed out Yahoo execs: "Much of this testimony reveals that while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."

“I personally apologize to them for what they and their families are going through,” Yahoo's Yang said to Gao Qinsheng, Shi Tao's mother, who sat behind him at the hearing. Ms. Gao wept as Rep. Lantos demanded Yang beg her for forgiveness.

Yeah, it was quite a scene. But it didn't help her son any: he still served the majority of his sentence before being released earlier this year.

In 2007, the same year CEO Yang groveled and begged for forgiveness, the World Organization for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against Yahoo on behalf of the jailed dissidents, claiming that the company violated the Alien Tort Claims Act by aiding and abetting the Chinese government in "torture, cruel and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest, and prolonged detention." The suit claimed that there are at least 60 other cases in which Yahoo turned over intel on political dissidents to Chinese authorities.

Yahoo quickly settled the case out of court for an undisclosed sum. And it's not surprising. Aside from the deadly publicity the case caused the company, there was a good chance that Yahoo would lose if it had decided to fight. At least that's the opinion of an investigation and analysis published in Brooklyn Journal of International Law, which analyzed the legal prospects of the case and found that, even with a fairly conservative reading of the Alien Tort Claims Act, Yahoo could have very well lost the case.

That was Yahoo circa 2007. The Yahoo of today, of course, is a signatory of the Reform Government Surveillance group, a brand new forward-thinking lobby dedicated to curbing government surveillance in the name of “free expression” and “privacy.”

This new commitment to freedom presumably means that Yahoo's role in turning over dissidents to Chinese authorities has come to an end, right? Not quite. Following the legal and public relations nightmares that resulted from its Chinese snitching cases, Yahoo merged its Chinese operations with Chinese-based e-commerce giant Alibaba (today it owns 24% of the company) — a move that allows Yahoo to continue complying with local law while shielding it from awkward legal repercussions back in the United States.

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And of course the danger posed by private surveillance is not restricted to proactive collaboration with law enforcement and oppressive regimes. As I wrote last week, Surveillance Valley companies have the power to sell your personal and intimate info to scammers, jack up your health insurance rates and get you fired.

Just one false move by these private companies can lead to you being questioned by the FBI over your eBay history, denied food and shelter by scammers and credit profilers, even prevented from receiving lifesaving medication by nervous insurers. All things which present a clearer, more present danger to most regular folks than any NSA ability to "put warheads on foreheads."

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]