The NSA, PRISM, and legal compulsion

Something I haven’t seen talked about at all is this:

It’s stated over and over that the PRISM companies – Microsoft, Google, Apple, et al – are legally required to work with the NSA when the NSA asks.

My question is this: Do they actually have any options, if they don’t want to participate?

Everyone basically assumes that the PRISM companies eagerly and happily bend over the day the nice man from the government arrives. I don’t think that’s the case.

First, I work for a company that works closely with the government in various ways, and to be frank no one is really particularly thrilled with the long arm of The United States Government. I can’t imagine the PRISM companies, even with groups set up specifically to interact with the government, are thrilled by its intrusion.

Second, these are for profit companies. Does anyone in their right mind think that anything that detracts from either 1)profit or 2)good PR is something any of them want? Ever? Dealing with this adds time to development and testing, introduces bugs, and as we’ve seen is a PR nightmare.

It is entirely possible that they want to help The Global War Against Violent Extremism (or whatever we’re calling it this week) but I imagine they’d prefer some way that didn’t take any actual work or risk actual money.

Anyway, let’s assume the CEO has decided that it’s all crap, and they don’t want any part of it. Can they even do anything?

They could challenge it in court, unless of course said challenge was immediately made secret. In which case they’d be in a rough place: explain to everyone where all this money is going without telling them why. Or, maybe it happens in public, but in any event they are public companies. Shareholders and boards might not like this. The majority might think it’s best to work with the NSA, or at least not be distracted in a very public fashion; words to the effect of “it’s not our corporate mission to shape public policy” come to mind. Is this the fight CEOs want to have, especially if a majority of shareholders end up being OK with it?

It is suggested, for example, that the timing of Apple coming on board to PRISM has to do with Jobs death; that somehow he resisted the NSA by sheer force of will. Maybe; he was very, very persuasive. On the other hand mundane reasons answer the question just as easily (can you imagine integrating one secret organization into another? It was probably a total nightmare).

So anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. I’m not trying to absolve them of anything; I’m not Protector Of Corporate Power. I genuinely don’t know if you can even say “hell no” to the NSA and the surveillance laws without dropping a bomb inside your company.

(Update: Noted pageview troll/complete moron Dvorak brings up the flip-side of my arguments here. I like his points but the fact remains, he’s a pageview troll and a moron, and will never in his life do something like switch to Linux. But stopped clocks, etc.)

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