When Edward Snowden took center stage last summer exposing the NSA’s intelligence-gathering practices, he caused a wave that’s still rippling through the security industry. Snowden put his finger on the industry soft spot: Why do we protect data? From whom are we trying to prevent intrusion?
Snowden’s revelations and the backlash that followed also illustrate the dramatic international differences in privacy vs. security values. Working with customers in both the US and in Europe, I’ve seen firsthand how those differences impact how security systems are architected. Beginning with “what is the data being protected?” vs. “how do we keep the bad guys out?” will lead to two very different security solutions.
While Europe has some of the strictest data privacy protection rules worldwide, the US security design principle primarily seeks to protect and prevent attacks toward the system. In Europe, strict rules enforce how companies can and should disclose and store personal information. From a national level, governments are pushing for even stronger regulations, coming together within the European Union to sign a common statute that outlines privacy practices around the disclosure and storage of personal information along with remedies for violations and independent government agencies that provide oversight. Additionally, corporations commonly add an additional privacy layer by establishing employee councils with the purpose of safeguarding employee information.
By comparison, US companies are more autonomous in their ability to deal with the disclosure and storage of personal information. In comparison to Europe, the US government does little to limit companies from tracking people across the web and selling their information to third-parties. Additionally, US companies can decide at their own discretion how much information they wish to reveal about their data practices. As it would seem, US companies seek primarily to secure sensitive information with the intent to protect and prevent attacks toward the system, without as much regard for the privacy of their customers and employees.
It’s all about culture and history
Data generation is global, so why do different parts of the world react differently to the same threat of security breaches and backdoors? Part of the reason is the distinctly different cultural-political heritage between the US and Europe. While European culture is more conservative and risk-adverse, the US is more risk-taking and innovative. Some US technology experts claim that stricter privacy regulations would stifle innovation. As an individualistic society, the US has mostly left it up to companies to decide how people’s online data should be handled. By contrast, Europe’s policies highlight the significance of privacy being safeguarded by the government.
Historical differences in the US and Europe can help explain the subtle aspects of their different trust cultures. European countries, specifically Germany after WWII, became sensitive to secret services spying on their citizens. As a result, very strict privacy rules have been implemented and governments and larger organizations must adhere to these standards when handling any personal data. Whether it is a national census or new electronic ID cards, Telecom data retention or email marketing databases, in general Europeans have had strongly held beliefs about individual privacy rights for a much longer time period than in the US where government spying has only recently become a public concern.
The controversy around data privacy extends beyond individual companies and also focuses on how much access the government should have to people’s private information. The NSA documents that Snowden leaked to the press revealed how US intelligence agencies routinely demanded access to US companies’ troves of consumer data.
For example, Microsoft recently lost a ruling against a US court to turn over a customer’s data stored in a European data center because the data was judged within reach of US search warrants. This case shows that the US government believes that it has the right to access US companies’ information, even if that information is stored overseas. What’s at stake here is the privacy protection of individual data and this ruling is the perfect manifestation of how European and US privacy laws have come to clash. The outcome of this and subsequent rulings will have a significant impact on US cloud service providers doing business internationally.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is at the forefront of the European Union which is seeking to fight back against what the EU considers the overarching reach of US intelligence agencies. Some European countries are trying to move forward with a data protection policy dubbed the “Schengen Cloud,” a Europe-only integrated electronic communication network. The idea behind Schengen Cloud is to give European countries control over its own networks without the US being a middleman. However, the US has come out strongly against the proposal, saying that it provides an advantage to European-based information and communications technology (ICT) providers.
Data privacy differences between the US and Europe have already impacted business and political relations. Germany recently announced that it will not renew its contract with Verizon over fear that the company could turn over its communications to US intelligence agencies. The German government is now requiring telecom providers to sign contracts that confirm that they are not legally obligated to share information with foreign governments. In the face of such developments US companies run the risk of losing out on business deals if other governments follow suit and adapt to the German government’s stance on data privacy. In fact, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (IFTF) released a study in 2013 that estimated that the US cloud computing industry could lose up to $35 billion over the next three years as a result of the NSA spying revelations.Some US companies may even consider relocating their headquarters outside of the US to protect their data and their business contracts.
As more devices become Internet-enabled and the amount of data generated continues to skyrocket, organizations in the business of data protection will need to take a stance on privacy vs. security -- no matter what side of the geographical border they are on.