Snowden, Meet Google: 'Reset the Net' Campaign Unites Strange Bedfellows

Reset the Net and Snowden are targeting state surveillance, but what about Silicon Valley data miners like Google?

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Jun 6 2014, 3:50pm
Banksy graffito. Image: Flickr

Google is the foremost architect of corporate data mining; Edward Snowden, the thorn in the side of the NSA and, as it were, corporate data miners like Google. Now the two are joining forces under Fight for the Future's Reset the Net initiative, a "national backlash campaign" launched by internet users and tech companies committed to restoring privacy and protecting the Internet with NSA-resistant tools. 

A year ago, Snowden exposed the epic scale of NSA surveillance. One of the first leaks, which revealed the existence of PRISM, suggested Google and other Silicon Valley companies were giving the NSA direct access to user data.

Tech companies quickly denied involvement, with Google declaring its support of user privacy. Google's post-leak actions, and its current involvement in Reset the Net, make perfect business sense: broad-scale surveillance has caused a user backlash against data mining, which is at the core of Google's business model.

So, are Google and Snowden far too ideologically distant to be true Reset the Net bedfelllows? Perhaps not. Snowden believes the adoption of strong encryption and other privacy technologies is the place to start. 

"This is the beginning of a moment where we the people begin to protect our universal human rights with the laws of nature rather than the laws of nations," said Snowden in a statement made yesterday through his attorney. 

"We have the technology, and adopting encryption is the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance. That’s why I am excited for Reset the Net—it will mark the moment when we turn political expression into practical action, and protect ourselves on a large scale," he said.

Google echoed Snowden's call for strong encryption. On Tuesday, the tech company marked their official entry into the Reset the Net campaign with a Chrome source code extension, End-to-End, designed to make email encryption easy.

"Gmail has always supported encryption in transit by using Transport Layer Security (TLS), and will automatically encrypt your incoming and outgoing emails if it can," reads a statement from Google. "The important thing is that both sides of an email exchange need to support encryption for it to work; Gmail can't do it alone."

Google also created a new section in their Transparency Report titled Safer Email, detailing how much email is encrypted in transit and who supports encryption, while giving users the option to download the full dataset. 

As encouraging as it is to see Google join the fray, there is something curious about the company standing alongside Snowden. He may simply be picking his battles now for the greater good, and it's clear from privacy advocates that the big focus right now is curtailing the government's activities.

"It's been one year since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the US government's abusive spying programs. In that time Congress and the Obama administration have failed to protect our rights," said Tiffiniy Cheng, a spokesperson for Fight for the Future. "Now, they've got a rebellion on their hands as tech companies and internet users work together to directly intervene in mass surveillance and block the NSA and its kind from the web."

“Mass surveillance is not inevitable. We believe we can make it too expensive and too difficult to bulk collect our data,” added Cheng. “Starting today, we will turn more and more parts of the Internet into places the NSA and other governments cannot see. Who in Congress is going to ask for more money to take away the human rights that citizens have taken back?"

Though pushback against state surveillance is the most immediate concern, there is still a huge data mining business that is growing to vast proportions with no signs of slowing. And, unless we stop using these products, it's not likely to change much. Even so, that conversation can't be put on the back burner forever.