NEW YORK — Silicon Valley was reeling Wednesday from the implications of what a Trump presidency might mean for tech companies that collect and store the data of private citizens across the world.
Two people who run smaller tech companies in San Francisco catering to groups marginalized by Trump told BuzzFeed News that they have begun quietly considering moving their servers, and potentially company headquarters, to outside the US because of fears that Trump might force them to hand over data they store on their clients.
“The types of people who use the services of our company are the sort of people Trump would want data on,” said one, who developed an app largely used by minority communities in the US. He asked not be named for fear of drawing attention to his company. Another, whose company largely runs analytics, told BuzzFeed News that there had already been a flurry of emails since the election from customers asking what sort of data the company stored on them. Representatives of both companies stressed, however, that any plans were “in their infancy” and “being created in a climate of anxiety.” More broadly, companies in Silicon Valley expressed concern over demands Trump might make on their resources, and panic over what could be done in two months before he assumes office to protect themselves.
“I have to take Trump at his word, I have to take his campaign promises seriously,” said Maciej Ceglowski, owner of Pinboard, a bookmarking site. “He said he would find and deport illegal immigrants. He said he wanted aggressive vetting of Muslims. If you are making those policies, and you are serious about pursuing them, you can force Facebook to do a lot of the work for you. You can have them detect users with languages set to Spanish or Arabic.” Facebook, Apple, and Twitter did not reply to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News, nor did Google or Microsoft.
During the course of his campaign, Trump expressed disgust at Apple, for refusing to create a backdoor that would let the FBI unlock an iPhone used by the attackers in San Bernardino. (The phone was ultimately unlocked with the help of a third-party private company that the FBI refused to name.) Trump told CNN during a debate that he would “penetrate the internet” to prevent ISIS from using it to recruit fighters and “close down parts of the internet.” Trump has, at times, expressed an interest in enhancing surveillance of Americans, saying at times that government should be tasked with with monitoring mosques and that police should create “demographics units.”
"We ought to start [surveillance] up again, and we ought to start it up this morning," he told the Breitbart News Daily radio show last year.
Sen. Ron Wyden, who recently won re-election in Oregon, told BuzzFeed News that he would “fight government mandates to build backdoors in Americans’ personal devices. “
“Encryption is about more security versus less security and I’ll do everything in my power to stop any bigger administration action to undermine this cornerstone of cybersecurity,” said Wyden. Though he remains one of the few members of Congress to openly support better encryption by tech companies as a means of safeguarding privacy.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has warned that the surveillance tools he revealed could one day be inherited by White House even more eager to spy on its citizens than previous administrations.
Tim Edgar, who served as the first data privacy officer for the White House before leaving for Brown University, where he now works as Academic Director for Law and Policy, said that Trump had raised a number of privacy changes that would be “a real concern to people who care about civil liberties and privacy.”
“Trump doesn’t seem to do well with limits of any kind. We’ve heard a lot about the policies he would like the enact, whether boycotting Apple or shutting down the internet, but not how he would do them,” said Edgar. “ Once in office, we don’t know how he will stretch the powers of the NSA of the FBI to harass his political opponents… or if there is resistance by the professional intelligence community it’s possible to imagine him using his political aides to put pressure on companies to do something they don’t want to be doing.”
Companies that hold the kind of data Trump might be interested in accessing have several options, cybersecurity experts told BuzzFeed News. They could simply erase the data they keep, or chose to store it for a finite period of time, rather than the decades-long caches that are currently stored by many companies. Companies could also rush to encrypt their data, in a way which would it make it impossible for even their own cryptographers to break, such as the type of encryption that Apple has recently implemented on their phones. Companies could, lastly, choose to relocate or at least move their servers to other countries, though it is unrealistic for larger companies, given the size of existing servers in the US and the population they serve, as well as the concern that, once abroad, the NSA has far greater powers of surveillance onto a company, exposing it to new concerns.
“There are always people who consider leaving but the question is where are they going? Right wing populism is sweeping a lot of countries,” said Edgar. “Relocating outside of the US won’t help you with direct government surveillance, and you are more vulnerable outside the US, given the NSA.”
Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a company that provides a content-delivery network (CDN) with security features said he was “an outlier” in Silicon Valley, in that he didn’t think that anything would change, at least in the short term.
“We were worried that we would be going from a slightly more tech savvy administration to a slightly less tech savvy administrations,” said Prince, though he added that they would have been equally concerned had Clinton won as Trump. “Both Hillary [Clinton] and Donald [Trump] seemed like they were less tech savvy and more pro surveillance than what we lived with under the Obama admin. So we were concerned for any outcome.”
Ceglowski, however, said that everyone should be concerned. On Wednesday, he made a plea on Twitter for companies such as Facebook and Google to reconsider the data they collected and stored on individuals.
“We have no reason to believe that Trump is not going to do what he said he was going to do. It’s no longer, a distant dystopian future,” said Ceglowski.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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