The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Rebuilding America's Online Reputation

Administration's Response to NSA's Revelations Falls Short
Rebuilding America's Online Reputation
Jimmy Carter says he uses snail mail to write to foreign leaders. (NBC News)

When a former president of the United States acknowledges that he uses snail mail to correspond with foreign leaders to avoid snooping by the National Security Agency, you know the image of America as a bastion of freedom - at least online - has dropped a few more notches.

See Also: ISO/IEC 27001: The Cybersecurity Swiss Army Knife for Info Guardians

"I believe if I send an e-mail, it will be monitored," former President Jimmy Carter said March 23 on NBC's Meet the Press. "When I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write a letter myself, put it in the post office, and mail it. ... I have felt that my own communications are probably monitored."

The Obama administration has been playing defense for nearly 10 months since publication of the first leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the U.S. government's e-surveillance programs. And Carter's remarks weren't the only comments over the past few days that suggest the administration has failed in advancing the ball to counter public trust for its cybersecurity stance.

Call for More Transparency

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was disappointed by what he heard from Obama during a March 21 White House meeting the president held with top executives from six technology companies, says Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth.

"While the U.S. government has taken helpful steps to reform its surveillance practices, these are simply not enough," Seth says. "People around the globe deserve to know that their information is secure, and Facebook will keep urging the U.S. government to be more transparent about its practices and more protective of civil liberties."

At the meeting - also attended by the top executives of Google, Dropbox, Box, Netflix and Palantir - the president provided an update on the administration's progress in implementing the principles and reforms Obama announced on Jan. 17 (see Obama Orders Review on Use of Big Data), including a new directive to govern U.S. intelligence activities that would account for privacy and civil liberties.

"The president reiterated his administration's commitment to taking steps that can give people greater confidence that their rights are being protected while preserving important tools that keep us safe," a White House summary of the meeting says.

According to the summary, Obama updated the CEOs on the comprehensive big data review being led by senior adviser John Podesta (see U.S. Mulling Big Data Policy), which looks at how "big data will affect the way we live and work; the relationship between government and citizens; and how the public and private sectors can spur innovation and maximize the opportunities and free flow of this information while minimizing the risks to privacy."

Reason to Worry

Since revelation of NSA meddling, reports have painted a bleak outlook for overseas business prospects for American technology providers. Forrester Research estimated that IT service providers could lose more than $180 billion in revenue in three years because of NSA prying.

A projection by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation wasn't as bleak, projecting that U.S. cloud computing providers could lose between $21.5 billion and $36 billion in revenue by 2016. "At this stage, it is unclear how much damage will be done, in part, because it is still not certain how the U.S. government will respond," ITIF Senior Analyst Daniel Castro says in a report. But, he adds, "It is clear that if the U.S. government continues to impede U.S. cloud computing providers, other nations are more than willing to step in to grow their own industries at the expense of U.S. businesses."

The U.S. government's reputation was further sullied last week with revelations, also from the Snowden leaks, that the NSA hacked into servers of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications conglomerate. American officials have long contended that Huawei could allow the Chinese military and hackers to corrupt its products to steal corporate, government and military secrets.

A 2012 investigative report from the House Intelligence Committee recommended that U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive IT systems, should refrain from using equipment and component parts manufactured by Huawei and another Chinese manufacturer, ZTE (see House Panel: 2 Chinese Firms Pose IT Security Risks). Both Chinese companies have denied that their equipment is used by the Chinese government or military to spy on others.

Roaming Through Their Computers

The NSA sought to exploit Huawei's technology so that when the company sold equipment to other countries - including allies and nations that avoid buying American products - the NSA could roam through the company's computer and telephone networks to conduct surveillance and, if ordered by the president, offensive cyber-operations, according to a March 22 New York Times report.

"Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products," the Times says the NSA document reads. "We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products [to] gain access to networks of interest around the world."

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman asked the U.S. to explain itself and stop such acts. And, Chinese President Xi Jinping brought the matter up with Obama when they met March 24 at The Hague for a nuclear security summit.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, at a press briefing, acknowledged that both the United States and China engage in intelligence activities. "But there's a clear distinction, in our view, between intelligence activities that have a national security purpose versus intelligence activities that have a commercial purpose," Rhodes says.

Still, despite strong evidence that China has hacked into American computers to pilfer trade secrets (see 6 Types of Data Chinese Hackers Pilfer), this latest revelation from Snowden runs the risk of making China look a bit less threatening than the United States in cyberspace.

Clearly, the Obama administration needs to do a better job to rebuild trust, in the U.S. and around the world. Just ask President Carter.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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