By Brandon Bailey / San Jose Mercury News
Outraged by new revelations about the government’s Internet surveillance programs, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that he telephoned President Barack Obama personally to complain about “the damage the government is creating for all of our future.”
Zuckerberg’s Wednesday [3/13/14] night phone call — the latest sign of the tech industry’s growing alarm over government spy efforts — came on the heels of a news report that said the National Security Agency has developed a computer program that can install spying software by masquerading as a Facebook network server when a surveillance target attempts to visit the social network.
The NSA, in a statement issued Thursday, denied that it impersonates “U.S. social media or other websites.” But in a post on his own Facebook account, Zuckerberg wrote that he’s “confused and frustrated” by the recent cascade of revelations about government surveillance.
“The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst,” Zuckerberg said in his post.
It’s not the first time Zuckerberg has publicly voiced frustration over the NSA’s Internet surveillance. He told a tech industry conference last fall that the government “blew it” by not anticipating the economic fallout of revelations that U.S. authorities had spied on Internet users around the world.
But in his phone call, Zuckerberg for the first time raised the issue directly with Obama. The Facebook co-founder, who has met previously with the president on friendlier terms, did not attend a White House session several weeks ago when other tech executives reportedly voiced concerns about the NSA.
“When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government,” Zuckerberg wrote to Facebook users Thursday.
“I’ve called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future,” he added. The White House confirmed the phone call to Reuters.
Facebook, Google and other tech giants have recently increased efforts to encrypt data transmissions and guard against intrusion by government agencies or other hackers. But this week, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher reported that documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show the government has infected personal computers with spyware by mimicking the actions of Facebook pages.
The spy program, code-named QuantumHand, is part of a broader effort by the NSA to plant spyware by using a variety of techniques, including sending spam emails on a large scale, according to the report posted by The Intercept, a new Web magazine launched with funding from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Citing leaked documents, the report said the program works by monitoring Internet traffic around the world. When a targeted individual tried to access certain websites, such as a Facebook page, the report said an alarm would prompt the NSA program to send “malicious data packets” that appear as if they are coming from a legitimate page.
While the program apparently isn’t aimed at Internet users on a mass level, it’s unclear how widely it is used.
In a statement Thursday, the NSA called the report “inaccurate” and added “NSA uses its technical capabilities only to support lawful and appropriate foreign intelligence operations.”
But other tech leaders have complained that NSA surveillance is violating users’ privacy and eroding trust in the security of online services. Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, last week, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt drew a parallel between NSA programs and hacking by the Chinese government.
Also at the festival, Snowden spoke by video hookup from Russia and urged the tech industry to expand the use of encryption and other technical methods of blocking government surveillance. Zuckerberg appeared to echo that call in his Facebook post, after describing his company’s efforts to safeguard data.
“Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform,” Zuckerberg wrote.
“So it’s up to us — all of us — to build the internet we want,” he added. “I’m committed to seeing this happen, and you can count on Facebook to do our part.”