If, like me, you are only now catching up with this, here is the story so far in a very abridged form. Edward Snowden the former US National Security Agency operative has revealed to the world that the NSA has been collecting, in bulk, meta data from search providers such as Google and Yahoo and also Facebook, Hotmail and anything else they can get their hands on, from Americans and non-Americans for years.
We also know, courtesy of the Guardian, that Skype has been compromised as has Outlook, whose encryption was unlocked even before official launch. The scale of the operation is staggering and is global – the French and Germans in particular are furious.
How have they got away with this? That is a good question, particularly in light of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which asserts the rights of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure.
Whilst the Founding Fathers may not have had the internet as a primary focus of their concerns for individual liberty it is clear that, in the modern world, search and seizure of information has as much to do with meta data as it does with paper.
The diplomatic implications are enormous, as are the potential implications for the big technology companies like Microsoft and Google who have been handing over the information (although they claim it has been under duress).
Web users are fickle and can quickly switch their allegiances to new social media or search providers with the click of a button. In fact, we might already have a clue to what the ‘Silent Majority’ of web users think of the ‘co-operation’ that has been offered to the NSA.
Zero tracking site DuckDuckGo for example, which pledges not to track or store data about its users went from serving 1.7 million searches per day at the start of June to three million within a fortnight.
The nightmare for the big players, Google in particular, is that the revelations accelerate the fragmentation of search which is already occurring in the States. The April 2013 ComScore results suggest Google lost 0.6% market share during the previous year to its rivals, which may not sound like a lot, but does demonstrate a clear trend and could potentially be worth billions in lost revenue.
It is too early to say what long-term effect these leaks will have on web users but, if the future is zero tracking, there are a lot of technology companies out there that will have to radically rethink their business plans.