Report on the Lecture by Christopher Soghoian at CIS on the ‘Role of US Tech Companies in Governmental Surveillance’

(August 27, 2012)

The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore hosted a lecture by renowned privacy researcher and activist, Dr. Christopher Soghoian who is currently engaged with the American Civil Liberties Union as a Senior Policy Analyst. An expert on the intersection of technology, law and policy, Dr. Soghoian’s lecture on the‘Role of US Tech Companies in Governmental Surveillance’ was an enlightening experience for over 30 students of the National Law School of India, Bangalore who were attended the event co-ordinated by the Indian Journal of Law and Technology.

The two-hour long lecture started with his own experience of being raided by the FBI, twice, allegedly due to concerns arising out of his ‘interest’ in surveillance methodology. The interactive lecture progressed to discuss how various major e-mail clients such as Gmail, Yahoo! and Outlook had been deceiving their users over their privacy and data-sharing policy. Soghoian relied on his extensive research, gathered from Freedom of Information requests and rigorous investigation, and discussed the loopholes in privacy policy with each major e-mail client. It was discovered that prominent tech companies collaborated with governments who are renowned for human rights violations especially with regard to free speech, by sharing information on content of e-mails and location of users and number of logins.

The lecture proceeded to examine telecom and ISP services in the United States and Soghoian proceeded to cite facts and figures about how the number of requests for tapping of phones increased substantially for ‘miscellaneous matters’ as compared to tapping requests for drug-trafficking related offences. He again analysed the position of each carrier on these matters and presented startling evidence of how executives of a major carrier were boasting how they had helped law-enforcement agencies by handing over their customers’ GPS coordinates, over eight million times. He also cited India’s example and spoke of how wire-tapping orders are freely ordered and expressed concern over the lack of any oversight on these operations.

Dr. Soghoian then explained these e-mail and telecom cases and talked of means and measures of tackling the slow and steady erosion of digital freedom. He spoke from personal experience and motivated students from NLS to confront executives from major tech companies to fully disclose their secretive privacy policy and effectively utilise the Right to Information Act and bring clarity to the number and type of data-sharing requests filed by the government. He cited Google’s example and how they have created videos and released regular reports on requests and total revenue earned from such requests. He lauded their initiative, but expressed concern regarding Google not informing individual subscribers of requests for their data. He moved on to critically analyse how long-term storage of data by tech companies fosters abuse of freedom by government and called for companies to destroy all private data within a reasonable time-frame. He also believed that companies can be motivated into adopting these freedom-friendly practices by making the consumer demand these features from their e-mail client and telecom carrier.

Dr. Soghoian’s lecture came to a close with him opening up the floor and answering a variety of questions with Ms. Malavika Jayaram, a CIS Fellow herself, ranging from striking a balance between privacy and security concerns to the lack of legislative awareness and judicial oversight on such issues. The lecture was an inspiring event for all who attended and everyone took back tips on protecting their rights and freedoms online.

Click here for the pdf file.

© 2012 The Indian Journal of Law & Technology

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ISSN Number: 0973-0362