How to Boycott Big Tech

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by James Corbett
BoilingFrogsPost.com
July 16, 2013

As the NSA spying scandal inevitably morphs into the Edward Snowden manhunt melodrama, the conversation that these (decade-old) “revelations” was supposed to open up is spun further and further away from the point. One of the key issues surrounding the question of the NSA spying grid that has been swept under the rug during this entire episode is how the active cooperation of the Big Tech corporations is an essential part of this system.

As we explored in previous editions of The Eyeopener, government/corporate collaboration has been at the heart of Silicon Valley since its very inception. As we have also previously examined, the CIA has been directly involved in fostering advanced IT R&D since 1999 through In-Q-Tel, its own venture capital arm. And as has been previously outlined on The Corbett Report, the hardwiring of backdoor access for the US intelligence agencies into all major telecommunications equipment was first mandated in 1994 through the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA.

Another key element of this collaboration is the intimate relationship between the NSA and the tech giants. In the 1990s, Lotus made no attempt to hide the fact that they built a trapdoor into their popular Lotus Notes software that allowed the NSA to crack encrypted emails sent using the international version of the program. When this “differential” encryption began to gain notoriety, an effort was made to remove mention of it from the web, but details remain on IBM’s website.

In 1997, it was revealed that all editions of the Windows operating system since Windows 95 contained a software driver called ADVAPI.DLL which ran unknown security and encryption functions. In 1999, researchers discovered notes that programmers had failed to remove from the source code indicating that the driver was an NSA key, and allowed the agency to covertly install and run unknown software on any users’ system.

In February 2010, the Washington Post reported that in the wake of the Chinese cyber-attack on Google, the NSA’s general counsel had drafted a “cooperative research and development agreement” authorizing the agency to directly access Google’s servers. The Electronic Privacy Information Center immediately filed FOIA requests for details of the NSA-Google collaboration, but the courts have repeatedly foiled those requests. As recently as May, a DC circuit court ruled that the government does not have to respond to those requests.

Now, the Snowden PRISM documents once again confirm that the NSA has access to information from all of the top internet services, including Google, Microsoft, Skype, YouTube, Apple, Yahoo! And others.

As we discussed last week on The Eyeopener, there are those who even now are hoping that some Congressional committee or some brave Senator or some court case will somehow put an end to the total surveillance madness that has been carefully built into the very source code of the software and operating systems and internet services which billions around the world continue to use. This not only overlooks the fact that—exactly as the White House and defenders of the system argue—the entire program was overseen from its very inception by these same legislators and courts. It also irnores the testimony of Russell Tice that all of the key committee members and members of the judiciary have been wiretapped by the NSA for at least a decade, meaning that any efforts to stop this system from those corners is likely to be immediately identified and quashed with bribery, blackmail or threats.

While this seems to be an intractable situation, there is a missing piece of this puzzle that few have yet explored: us. The corporations have forced no one to purchase their booby-trapped, NSA backdoor spy-laden software or operating systems. People have purchased it of their own free will, whether out of ignorance, or inertia, or an unwillingness to seek out alternatives. But alternatives to many of the Big Tech products do exist, and making use of them is much easier than many believe.

Last week I talked to Dr. Katherine Albrecht, the head of US media relations for StartPage.com, about StartMail, and the privacy that it is promising to afford its users.

Another key area of resistance presents itself in the free software movement, a movement that for decades has advocated for user control over software, and the ability to view and change the source code of any program that is run on a user’s system. The idea itself is simple enough, but its ramifications are remarkably broad when it comes to the future of technology and the possibility of evading the Big Tech spy grid.

Last week I also had the chance to talk to Tim Kilkenny, host of the Revelations Radio News podcast, about the free software movement, and how people can switch off of the Big Tech operating systems and software and onto free software.

In short, there are a number of ideas, projects, products and alternatives that already exist and are currently being worked on to circumvent the fascistic combination of Big Tech and Big Government that have been conspiring for decades to collect everyone’s electronic data. As with all nascent movements that promise big change, there are those who will scoff at the idea of boycotting Big Tech. There are no shortage of excuses for why people will not participate in such an idea: it is too expensive, too complicated, too ineffectual; there are not enough other people doing it; the infrastructure of the current system is already too pervasive. To these people, petitioning the government to make the corporations offer them the products that they want is the more realistic option, and they will continue paying the very corporations that have been crafting this surveillance grid for the privilege of using their spyware.

For the rest of us, the road ahead is difficult and there are many obstacles to be overcome, both technological and social, as we spread the message that it is our own personal responsibility to withdraw our cooperation from the Orwellian panopticon system. Victory in this fight is by no means certain, but one thing is for sure; it is more satisfying by orders of magnitude to know that, however events transpire, one has not personally assisted in the creation of the spy grid, nor cooperated with its architects in its construction. And that, it must be stressed, is a victory in itself.

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