Giving the snoops the runaround

The US National Security Agency has been accused of spying on millions of people all over the world. (AP)

The US National Security Agency has been accused of spying on millions of people all over the world. (AP)

Silicon Valley's role in United States government surveillance has triggered public anxiety about the internet, but it turns out there is at least one technology company you can trust with your data. The only problem: it's a relative minnow in the field, operating from offices in Utah.

XMission, Utah's first independent and oldest internet service provider, has spent the past 15 years resolutely shielding customers' privacy from government snoops in a way that larger rivals apparently have not.

The company, a comparative midget with just 30 000 subscribers, cited the US's fourth constitutional amendment in rebuffing warrantless requests from authorities, showing that it is possible to resist official pressure.

"I would tell them I didn't need to respond if they didn't have a warrant, that [to do so] wouldn't be constitutional," the founder and chief executive, Pete Ashdown, said at his Salt Lake City headquarters.

Since 1998 Ashdown (46) has rejected dozens of law enforcement requests, including justice department subpoenas, on the grounds that they violated the US Constitution and state laws on user privacy.

"I would tell them 'please send us a warrant', and then they'd just drop it."

Information requests
Ashdown assented just once, on his lawyer's advice, to a 2010 FBI request backed by a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"I believe, under the fourth amendment, digital data is protected. I'm not an unpaid branch of government or law enforcement."

Ashdown is wary about Silicon Valley's carefully worded insistence that the government has no direct access to servers.
Access to networks, not servers, is the key, he said.

The state attorney general has alleged that XMission is soft on crime but the company, with a staff of 45 and a turnover of $7-million, has suffered no official retaliation, said Ashdown. "I didn't feel that I was in danger or that my business suffered."

In the wake of revelations over National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and ties to Silicon Valley, he has published a report detailing official information requests, and the company's responses, over the past three years.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation called it a model for the industry. "XMission's transparency report is one of the most transparent we've seen," said Nate Cardozo, a lawyer for the advocacy group.

The foundation has lobbied big service providers – in vain – to publish individual government requests and their responses to the requests. Google and other giants would need a different format for scale but could emulate the Utah minnow's spirit, said Cardozo. "The major service providers should demonstrate their commitment to their users and take XMission's transparency report as a model."

Privacy champion
The Electronic Freedom Foundation's most recent Who Has Your Back report – an annual ranking of privacy protection by big tech companies – gave Twitter the maximum of six stars and just one each to Apple and Yahoo!

Utah is an unlikely home for an internet privacy champion. The state's conservative politicians cheered the Bush-era Patriot Act and welcomed the NSA's new data centre at Bluffdale, outside Salt Lake City.

Ashdown, who toured the facility with a group of local data centre operators, said he has not received NSA information requests but sees irony in it establishing its data behemoth in his backyard.

The agency's online snooping has betrayed public trust, he said. "Post-9/11 paranoia has turned this into a surveillance state. It's not healthy."

The only solution to internet snooping is encryption, he said.

Ashdown attributes part of his wariness of authority to his mother, who saw the Nazis overrun Denmark. He ran as the Democratic Party candidate for the US Senate in 2006, promising to bring technology savvy to Washington, but lost to the Republican incumbent, Orrin Hatch. He ran again in 2012, but lost in the primary.

An additional disappointment is the discovery that many, if not most, ordinary people – at least until the NSA scandal – care little about ­privacy when selecting internet providers. "Unfortunately it's not what people think about. They put name recognition and cost ahead of privacy," Ashdown said. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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