The operators right now are in a bit of a bind when it comes to recent revelations of the NSA's surveillance program. They're bound by law to cooperate with the government and most likely legally bound not to discuss the program. The best they can do is offer up the party line, which to this point has been that their customers' privacy is of the greatest concern but that they also have an obligation to abide by the law. In this case the law includes handing over detailed calling information to authorities upon request. Going forward, all eyes will be watching what stance the operators take on future security and privacy regulation.
Carriers Fare Better than Facebook, Google
"The problem for the carriers here is that you're limited to what you can say, and you can't say no," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. "For carriers, I think that in some ways the best strategy may just be to lay low."
Feld says the additional revelations that Internet services like Google and Facebook had handed over data to the government at least took some of the weight off the carriers.
"The attention seemed to move off of the carriers and onto the NSA and some of the Internet companies...I think there was a feeling that the Internet companies may have cooperated where they didn't have to," Feld said, but notes that even as blame shifts to other entities, the carriers do a lot of business overseas. He cited T-mobile's German parent company, Deutsche Telekom, as one example of a company that might have some explaining to do.
"It's not that this is without consequences for these companies even if their domestic customers get over it or don't hold them accountable because they're mad at NSA," Feld said.
The wireless industry has always held privacy sacred, considering the very personal nature of the communications that cross the carrier networks (i.e. email, photos, texts). Talk to any developer or mobile marketer and the conversation almost inevitably ends with a plug for privacy and best practices. So how do consumers move ahead, knowing that the operators are bound to a government policy that ensures deep surveillance?
"I think that to some degree people are likely to be watching the position that the carriers take more carefully," Feld said. "It's one thing to say, 'We didn't have a choice and there was a court order.' It's another thing, if when there's legislation pending and you actively support expansion of CALEA [Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act]."
Feld says that there is already a legislative pushback happening. Public Knowledge is a part of the Stop Watching Us campaign, which is encouraging people to urge their state representatives to increase transparency and vote against legislation that allows this kind of surveillance by the NSA.
“Our concern here is that where you have these companies and the government is able to insert itself with very little effort to monitor what everybody is doing and that that is very much a violation the kind of freedom that we would hope people would enjoy online,” Feld said.
Feld also noted the June 27 item on the FCC’s docket that could prove very interesting to watch within the context of the NSA leaks. The FCC is scheduled to consider a declaratory ruling aimed at clarifying that wireless carriers that collect, or direct the collection of, Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) on mobile devices must adhere to statutory and regulatory CPNI requirements in protecting that information.
“The carriers may well feel that they’re hamstrung in pushing back against a FCC effort to expand privacy at this time, even when they might normally oppose it,” Feld said. “And members of congress who would normally be supportive of carriers…may find it very difficult this week to say that the government is too concerned about people’s privacy.”
Consumers Take Matters into Their Own Hands
Since Snowden’s revelations came to light, the American public has been split on how much this kind of surveillance means to them. To be sure, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as well as the bombings in Boston, weigh heavily on this debate. Some feel privacy should be hedged in the name of security, while others argue that security at the cost of privacy is a travesty.
Mark Little, principal analyst with Ovum’s consumer research division, agrees with Feld that it’s the Over-the-Top players like Google, Facebook and Apple that have the most to explain.
“Yes, the carriers will have questions to answer and will have to manage negative fallout as well, but in many ways, I think the bigger brands that already have a great deal of baggage on the privacy and security front—Google, Facebook—will have much more to worry about,” Little said.
Little contends that it takes a while for trust to erode, and for the most part the carriers have been relatively clean until now.
“It’s a gradual rising of the water table of infringement that eventually will tip consumers into a habit of using privacy tools to block tracking,” Little said, noting an October 2012 Ovum survey that showed 77 percent of consumers in the United States would “definitely select do-not-track if available when using a search engine.”
As consumers start getting a grip on just exactly what’s happening with their data, Little expects the break out of what he calls a “privacy war” between consumers and the data collectors.
“It’s less what’s going to happen to Verizon, or Facebook and Google, now that this is out, and more, ‘Ok, add that to what Google has already screwed up…and eventually you have a great proposition from the privacy market…and all these tools for blocking,” Little said.