Security Psychology And Why Even Messy Numbers Of Government Data Demands Are Valuable

People assume the worst. So when it comes to counting government “requests” for private data, disclosing a number, even a high number, is far better than the fear of infinity. That’s why tech giants are fighting to show they aren’t open books surrendered to the NSA. They want to prove only the suspicious are being spied upon.

“Direct access” were the words that drummed up the fear. The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency had attained direct access to the data of nine of the world’s largest tech companies. Many of those companies aggressively denied this, saying they only provide specifically requested data when legally obligated to. Unfortunately they were heavily muzzled regarding the specifics of what they could say. The vagueness combined with their initial inaccurate reports of direct access left the public shaken. Many innocent citizens got the sinking feeling they were being spied on.

Desperate To Disclose

Over the last week, the companies have been fighting for more freedom to disclose exactly how many government requests for data they’ve been receiving from the NSA. The hope was that that would quell the speculation.

Yesterday Facebook and Microsoft both cut deals to disclose numbers. Not hard numbers,  but at least a narrow range of numbers of requests they’ve recieved from the government for private user data on criminal as well as potential terrorist threats over the last six months. For Facebook, that range was nine to ten thousand requests on between 18,000 and 19,000 accounts. For Microsoft, it was six to seven thousand requests affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 users.

Previously, all companies were completely gagged when it came to requests from the National Security Agency, legally required to keep the number of requests for data on potential terrorist threats a secret. The deals let them disclose numbers…but only in aggregate with local, state, and federal criminal data requests, and only in bands of one thousand to obscure the specifics.

Numbers, Even Obscured Numbers, Fight Fear

Why Facebook and Microsoft wanted this was that these numbers establish a worst case scenario. Rather than allow conspiracy theorists and panicked journalists (which I was guilty of being) to speculate that hundreds of thousands, millions, or everyone was under the watchful eye of the NSA big brother, it capped the number of people possibly monitored at 19,000 for Facebook and 32,000 for Microsoft. That is a lot more reassuring than people being scared the surveillance extended to all users.

Facebook needed a number to point to more than anyone. It’s business model lives and dies by private data. When users feel comfortable, they volunteer the fuel for Facebook’s content relevance and ad targeting engines. If they feel paranoid, they’re not going to deactivate their accounts, as Facebook has become too crucial a utility for most. But they will be subtly weary of sharing their more personal information and content. That hurts Facebook.

But Google and Twitter immediately criticized the social network. Why? Because they cut a bargain rather than hold out for exact numbers of NSA requests and the volume of people affected. Facebook settled for giving the public something rather than nothing, even if the data on the NSA is obscured by being combined with non-NSA requests for more traditional criminal cases. That could make it harder for other companies to get the NSA to loosen up even further.

Facebook didn’t want to keep the public in the pitch dark, and couldn’t risk not getting to disclose anything. If the government does what’s right, this disclosure will just be a stepping stone to the data Google and Twitter want to provide. True transparency. That’s what the public deserves. But regardless of the criticism, what Facebook and Microsoft won for the public yesterday will go a long way to reassuring us that these companies aren’t knowingly spilling the beans on everyone, and the government might not be as powerful as we suspected.

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