It’s time for Amazon.com to become more transparent about surveillance requests by the U.S. government.
That was message from Chris Soghoian, the ACLU Principal Technologist famous for publicizing the faulty privacy practices of tech companies. Sogohian was in Seattle on Wednesday evening speaking at a Town Hall event titled “Reining in Our Surveillance Society.”
During the question-and-answer session, Soghoian was asked by two separate audience members about Seattle-based Amazon. He noted how he regularly speaks with lawyers “at all the big tech companies” — except for Amazon.
“I’ve hit a wall with Amazon,” Soghoian said. “It’s just really difficult to reach people there.”
Soghoian said that after Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents in 2013, companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo have revealed how many surveillance requests they receive from the U.S. government.
Amazon, meanwhile, has said nothing — despite the fact that it not only runs the country’s largest online retail platform, but also a massive cloud computing service used by thousands of other companies.
“I think Amazon has really escaped the spotlight,” Soghoian said. “Maybe we dropped the ball on that and should be focusing more attention on them. It’s about time Amazon published a transparency report.”
It’s no secret that Amazon has not disclosed any information about surveillance requests. The company scored poorly in a 2014 study that ranked tech giants on a data privacy scorecard. It also was left out of a letter signed by other companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple that encouraged NSA reform.
During the NSA leaks in 2013, an Amazon spokesperson told GeekWire that “we have not participated” in the U.S. government’s cyber-spying program. It’s possible that the government had not approached Amazon, as the company was somewhat outside the mold of the other tech giants cited in the reports. But given the Libertarian leanings of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it’s also possible that the government agencies would have been rebuffed by the company if they ever did make the inquiry.
It’s worth noting that in late 2013, Amazon inked a $600 million contract to provide cloud-computing services to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Soghoian, often called the “Ralph Nader of the Internet,” said this fact “doesn’t really terrify me” as other tech companies supply the government with hardware and software, too.
On the flip side, Soghoian specifically commended Apple and CEO Tim Cook for their decision to encrypt messages sent on iMessage and FaceTime.
“What’s fascinating about what Apple has done isn’t that they have made encryption available to users, but that they have turned it on by default,” he said. “Even if you don’t think about it, you are now using and gaining the protection of encryption technology.”
Soghoian added that this encryption technology, which is also used by Facebook-owned WhatsApp, is “causing an epic freakout in law enforcement and national security services.”
He also talked a bit about Microsoft and General Counsel Brad Smith, describing him as a “fairly outspoken guy who has criticized the actions of the U.S. government in forcing Microsoft to hand over data.” Soghoian warned the audience members not to use Skype if they are concerned about privacy, given that NSA documents revealed how Microsoft provided government access to its users’ Skype texts and calls.
“If you don’t want the state to be able to wiretap your communications, I’m afraid I can’t really recommend Skype,” Soghoian said.
Soghoian, who is credited for helping push Google to enable encryption by default for Gmail, noted that he has a “love-hate” relationship with the big tech companies and their lawyers.
“It’s really difficult to get companies to do things that are not aligned with business interests,” he said. “I can pressure companies to roll out encryption and I can pressure companies to update and upgrade security, because ultimately, it’s a question of money. But getting them to keep less data — that ultimately hits their business model. … It’s a really tough ask and I have not been successful in that area.”