The only thing that will stop electronic surveillance is money earned from electronic surveillance

Ironically, the makers of Google Glass may be among the only people who can stop digital snooping.
Ironically, the makers of Google Glass may be among the only people who can stop digital snooping.
Image: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Tech firms and internet activists are realizing that you have to fight fire with fire.

It’s been more than six months since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the electronic surveillance apparatus deployed by the US and other governments, covering everything from cellphone and e-mail data to today’s news about spies deployed in popular online games. Almost none of those capabilities have been altered: Indeed, legislation moving through the US Senate to purportedly limit electronic data collection would preserve a key loophole exploited by the US National Security Agency.

Now that may change: Today, eight major internet companies stepped forward to push for broader surveillances restrictions. Google, AOL, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and Yahoo are jointly supporting principles that would end bulk data collection of internet communications, force intelligence agencies to seek judicial approval for their information requests, and create more transparency about when and how that happens.

But one thing uniting the companies speaking out is their own dependence on your personal information: Their continued success depends on gathering data about you—including some you might not even be aware of—and securing it; that’s what makes them such tempting targets for government surveillance. Much has been made of the potential losses for internet companies if international clients don’t trust them to safeguard their information—to the tune of $180 billion for cloud services providers, about 25% of their revenue, per a much-quoted Forrester Research estimate.

Until now, the competitors, whose wealthy executives aren’t shy about using political donations to amass influence, have not united with one voice to demand legislative change. Some tech companies, particularly the telecom sector, are still largely silent. But the industry’s mobilization could be key to getting meaningful reforms up for a vote in the US.

Despite outrage over spying, the issue doesn’t appear to have much salience with US voters compared to priorities like the economy, the new health care law, and even issues like Syria’s civil war. To a large extent, the national security establishment in the US has been able to secure the legislative outcomes it prefers since 9/11, despite committed activists pushing back against overreach. But lawmakers and the intelligence community haven’t had to contend with the lobbying force of a major industry willing to spend on its priorities, and that could catalyze tangible change from Snowden’s revelations.