Yesterday, I wrote about the shady role of a few start-ups in the government's bid to gather more and more intelligence about people and businesses around the globe. It appears I underestimated just how many companies are involved.
Bloomberg's Michael Riley reports this morning:
Thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence, four people familiar with the process said.
It's unclear what, exactly, "classifed intelligence" means here, or what type of data these companies are providing to the national security agencies. But Riley's main point is that it's not just the "Big 9" colluding with the NSA--the government's reach among private enterprise is far deeper. And it may involve many of the companies average consumers transact with on a daily basis.
Which, of course, brings up some important questions--both ethical and strategic--for business owners. If faced with a decision to work with the NSA, or some subsidiary security agency operating under the NSA's claws, what would you do?
The lure of access to "classified intelligence" might sway you to comply, or perhaps even a prospect of helping protect the U.S. against threats--and offering information about customers' online activities might seem harmless at first. But what if you're "caught"?
Since Google was implicated in last week's NSA scandal, people began looking for search alternatives. VentureBeat reports that DuckDuckGo, a search engine that says it does not track its users' searches, saw its biggest boost in traffic ever this week.
"I believe the surveillance story is paramount right now, and people are talking about it," the site's founder told VentureBeat. "DuckDuckGo users are telling their friends and family about the private alternatives."
In other words: customers are willing to shift their usage patterns if they feel their privacy is at stake.
If Riley is right, and businesses do indeed "receive benefits" from the government in exchange for pawning off information about their customers, this may be the time for those businesses to reconsider whether this transaction is worth the potential PR nightmare and loss of trust if the relationship is ever exposed.
Of course, it's also an opportunity. Plenty of business owners routinely work with security agencies--like the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services in the Department of Homeland Security, for instance--when the government needs special assistance in tracking down people suspected of terrorist activities. And perhaps they should.
The point is that businesses need to be more transparent and come clean with customers about how their data is used--and who it's getting handed off to.