US Congress Must Rein in the Surveillance State

October 29, 2013


Thoughtworks, a custom software development firm headquartered in Chicago, Illinois employing 2400 people in 12 countries building business software, including websites, for many of the biggest companies globally, calls on the US Congress to take urgent action to reign in NSA overreach and end mass warrantless surveillance. We support the USA Freedom Act as an important first step and oppose any amendments that would weaken this important and overdue legislation.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and House Judiciary oversight leader Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) have shown tremendous leadership in working together on a comprehensive bipartisan FISA reform bill that would end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, install a special advocate at the country’s surveillance court, and increase transparency for government agencies and online service providers.

It has been revealed that the NSA has access to 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic, has conducted bulk collection of telephone calls and records and that it has spent billions of dollars to acquire and store this data. There is no reasonable basis for such seizures and they violate the Constitution.

At Thoughtworks, we have witnessed the adverse effects of the National Security Agency interception of data from Internet transmissions and data centers first-hand and have been involved in many conversations concerning the future of our industry should this unauthorized blanket surveillance be continued without proper transparency and oversight. The government’s sweeping, capricious spying is causing businesses to reconsider the use of many efficient, cost-effective technologies that have become commonplace in recent years, because the NSA may intercept their data, or their customers’ data, during transmission or while at rest, in data centers. This practice threatens productivity, it is bad for business and Congress should end it.

The Internet, and its most ubiquitous application, the World Wide Web, present unprecedented efficiency in all aspects of business and personal life. The Internet provides near instant communication by email, instant messaging, phone calls from anywhere to anywhere, and two-way interactive video calls – all at near zero marginal cost. The ability to freely participate in discussion forums, blogs, sites, and digital activism using the World Wide Web has strengthened democracy worldwide.

The Internet changes everything. Through disintermediation, removing the broker between parties that want to transact with or learn from each other, it has dramatically changed industry after industry: travel, auctions, bookselling, music, advertising, news, even dating. And in doing so, it has drastically reduced costs and disrupted previously dominant industries, replacing them with new ones. As with any disruption, there have been winners and losers, but prices have declined, sales volumes have increased, and profits have gone up. Society as a whole is massively better off financially. It is estimated that the Internet represents an $8 trillion a year economy, growing at an annual rate of roughly 20% per year, and is responsible for 21% of the growth in GDP in mature economies.

There are alternatives to the Internet. People can mail a letter. They can travel to meet a customer, rather than communicating electronically. They can walk into a store to buy books. They can smudge their fingers a bit as they read a newspaper. However, not using the Internet today is rapidly becoming equivalent to not participating in society. The loss of efficiency and the loss of aggregate benefits of participating in a global telecommunication network is a very high cost.

What would cause people to shun these enhancements, to be less efficient? To not find the best deal? To pay more? The desire for privacy.

People pay for privacy all the time. They put up curtains. They tint their car windows. There are several companies that promise private email, and people pay for that. Now that people know that every email and every Internet transaction and interaction is being intercepted some people will pay for privacy by avoiding email, shopping in person and going to the library to do research. Since much of the benefit of the Internet depends on “network effects,” if even a small percentage of people stop using the Internet the impact to network value and efficiency is significant. A world in which everyone is spied upon when they use the Internet is a less collaborative, less productive, less rich world.

Further, the growth of the internet has enabled the emergence of the cloud and related technologies which are some of the key drivers of the current economic recovery in the U.S. NSA spying threatens the entire cloud business. Some cloud data centers have opened themselves up to the NSA, which provide the technology for their own access to all that data; others have been compromised surreptitiously. By avoiding the cloud, and the Internet channels to the cloud that have been accessed by the NSA PRISM program, many companies will revert to older, far less efficient means of operating data centers, in order to keep the data of their customers and business partners private.

By increasing the cost of private computing, NSA spying decreases the ability of companies to innovate, ultimately hurting the nascent economic recovery. Articles in the Wall Street Journal, International Business Daily and elsewhere report that concerns over NSA spying could reduce revenue for cloud providers by $21 to $35 billion over three years. A survey conducted by the Cloud Security Alliance three months ago found that 10% of foreign companies had already cancelled a project for cloud services with a US-based provider. (This is consistent with recent polling that finds majority opposition to such dragnet surveillance of ordinary citizens.) Cloud services are big business, with revenues of $131 billion this year. Small percentage declines represent a significant loss of economic activity.

Beyond these serious threats to productivity and business competitiveness, the NSA spying revelations directly contravene the trust and transparency that had hitherto enabled the incredible expansion, reach and open culture of the global Internet. Never before have the people of this country, and indeed the world, been able to connect so easily across physical, cultural and political boundaries. Never has there been such universal access to and sharing of the world’s collective knowledge and best ideas. Never have there been such powerful tools for governments to engage citizens in the democratic process. Never has there been more cause for optimism about the potential of people everywhere to come together and navigate the increasingly complex challenges we face together.

It seems many of us have quickly come to take these incredible leaps of human progress for granted, and to assume that now that it has been established the Internet will be there for us forever. But this is not the case. The Internet, like all networks, depends on the mutual trust of all participants for its continued healthy operation. When that trust is compromised, in this case by a powerful actor within the network itself, network participants will quickly withdraw, disconnect or block access to their domains. The transformative gifts of the global Internet are in fact incredibly fragile and now under very real existential threat. As technologists and as citizens of the United States and the world, it is unconscionable to us that the actions of our government have threatened to destroy one of the most democratic, egalitarian and beneficial technologies in history.

The trust that has been destroyed by the NSA's activities will take a long time to regain and will require sustained global efforts across politics, law and technology. The USA Freedom Act is an important first step that will demonstrate that Congress is willing to rein in mass surveillance, defend privacy rights and remove this threat to efficiency, productivity and innovation.

Thank you for your consideration of this legislation of great importance to the technology industry. Our industry is proud to provide the means for individuals and businesses to use the Internet to learn, transact, engage, and yes, even to date. We know, first hand, the power and productivity these technologies can enable. And we know that businesses need to protect their data, and their customers’ data. This widespread surveillance creates an obstacle to the full realization of the promise of the Internet and threatens to undermine the business efficiencies our industry provides. We hope and expect that Congress will act swiftly to pass the USA Freedom Act so that the long process of rebuilding trust can begin.


Craig Gorsline
President and Chief Operating Officer