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Role of the US Tech Companies in Government Surveillance: A Lecture by Christopher Soghoian

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 26, 2012 11:03 AM
Christopher Soghoian will deliver a lecture on the role US tech companies play in assisting government surveillance at the Centre for Internet & Society office in Bangalore on August 27, 2012, from 5.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m.

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Aug 27, 2012
from 09:00 AM to 11:00 AM


The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore

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Your internet, phone and web application providers are all, for the most part, in bed with US and other foreign government agencies. They all routinely disclose their customers' communications and other private data to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Worse, firms like Google and Microsoft specifically log data in order to assist the government. How many government requests does your ISP get for its customers' communications each year? How many do they comply with? How many do they fight? How much do they charge for the surveillance assistance they provide? Who knows? Most companies have a strict policy of not discussing such topics.

The differences in the privacy practices of the major players in the telecommunications and internet applications market are significant. Some firms retain identifying data for years, while others retain no data at all; some voluntarily provide the government access to user data, while other companies refuse to voluntarily disclose data without a court order; some companies charge government agencies when they request user data, while others disclose it for free. For an individual, later investigated by the police or intelligence services, the data retention practices adopted by their phone company or email provider can significantly impact their freedom.

Unfortunately, although many companies claim to care about end-user privacy, and some even that they compete on their privacy features, none seem to be willing to compete on the extent to which they assist or resist the government in its surveillance activities. Because information about each firms' practices is not publicly known, consumers cannot vote with their wallets, and pick service providers that best protect their privacy.

This talk will pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding these practices. Based upon a combination of Freedom of Information Act requests, off the record conversations with industry lawyers, and investigative journalism, the practices of many of these firms will be revealed.

Christopher's Personal Experience

In the year 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided Christopher’s home at 2.00 a.m. seizing his personal documents and computers. Two attorneys, Stephen Braga and Jennifer Granick came to his defence. With their expert assistance, Christopher was able to get back his possessions within three weeks, and FBI’s criminal and TSA’s civil investigations were closed without any charges being filed.

Jennifer Granick came to Christopher’s assistance once again (joined by Steve Leckar) in 2010 after the Federal Trade Commission’s Inspector General investigated Christopher for using his government badge to attend a closed-door surveillance industry conference. It was at that event that Christopher recorded an executive from wireless carrier ‘Sprint’ bragging about the eight million times his company had obtained GPS data on its customers for law enforcement agencies in the previous years.

To know more, read Christopher Soghoian’s dissertation titled "The Spies We Trust: Third Party Service Providers and Law Enforcement Surveillance". [PDF, 1056 Kb]

About Christopher Soghoian

Christopher Soghoian is a privacy researcher and activist, working at the intersection of technology, law and policy. He is a Principal Technologist and Senior Policy Analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union and is based in Washington, D.C.

Soghoian completed his Ph.D. at Indiana University in 2012, which focused on the role that third party service providers play in facilitating law enforcement surveillance of their customers. In order to gather data, he has made extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act, sued the Department of Justice pro se, and used several other investigative research methods. His research has appeared in publications including the Berkeley Technology Law Journal and been cited by several federal courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Between the years, 2009-2010, he was the first ever in-house technologist at the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, where he worked on investigations of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Netflix. Prior to joining the FTC, he co-created the Do Not Track privacy anti-tracking mechanism now adopted by all of the major web browsers.

He is a TEDGlobal 2012 Fellow, was an Open Society Foundations Fellow between the years, 2011-2012, and was a Student Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University between 2008 and 2009.