On the face of it, it was sound advice. “If you’re worried about [security online], do something about it. Take security on yourselves, and don’t trust anybody else to do it.”
Thus spake Marcus Sachs, Verizon’s VP of national security policy, at Cyber Security Summit 2013, September 25, New York City. He was addressing people—many of whom, presumably, Verizon customers—concerned about (perhaps outraged over) the company’s compliance with National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs as revealed in the Edward Snowden leaks.
The sound part of Sachs’s advice is that, online and offline alike, each of us must take proactive, aggressive, primary responsibility for our security, privacy, and reputation. In two books now, Wide Open Privacy: Strategies for the Digital Life (IT-Harvest, 2012) and Cybermilitia: A Citizen Strategy to Fight, Win, and End War in Cyberspace (IT-Harvest, 2013), my coauthor, J. R. Smith, and I have advocated individual responsibility online and government and industry action to empower consumers to assume that responsibility. Consumers, the producers of Big Data and personally identifying information (PII) online, are in the best, most logical, and most appropriate position to control that data.
So much for sound thinking. Beyond this point, Sachs’s position betrays both bad business and bad citizenship.
First, the bad business. Let me count the ways.
- “Don’t look at us to protect your data. That’s on you,” Sachs told Tom’s Guide at the New York summit.
It’s always bad business to tell your customers or prospective customers to fend for themselves because you can’t help them.
2. Go to “services out there [that offer privacy and security apps] . . .”
It’s always bad business to deliberately send customers or prospective customers to other solution providers.
3. Sachs’s understanding of his business, as Tom’s Guide paraphrases it, is to “provide reliable, accessible communications between [Verizon] customers.” Sachs explained: “People are more interested in [whether or not their calls are going through] than [in asking] ‘Are you a spy for the NSA?’”
It’s bad business, really bad business, not to know your business. Sachs thinks his business, the business of Verizon, is to provide clear phone calls. But he mistakes one feature of his business—one service—for the whole business.
The whole business of Verizon is to deliver maximum value to each customer online. Of course, the company cannot guarantee absolute privacy and security. And of course, the company cannot promise to break the law in order to serve the customer. (Verizon, like other telecoms, has legal obligations to share aspects of customer data with the federal government, and federal law further bars Verizon and other telecoms from disclosing government requests for data.) What the company can and must do is pledge to deliver as much value, security, and privacy as it possibly can. It must never position itself in opposition to the customer, but always as the customer’s partner in an exchange of value for value. Anything less is just so much malpractice, posturing, bullying, or just plain dickish misconduct. In a very real sense, we might call it theft, an instance of taking value without giving commensurate value in return.
Can Verizon, or any business, continue to compete using this business model? Maybe—but certainly not as well as it might if it followed a more equitable model. But on to the topic of bad citizenship.
In the case of this major telecom provider, one consequence of failing to understand the company’s business is failing to accept Verizon’s role as one of the major stewards of the Internet. The Internet has become in an astoundingly short time the technological matrix of global civilization. Morally, it is, therefore, a public trust, but, legally, it is a creature of private enterprise. All of the Internet’s stewards—all of the telecoms and ISPs—are corporations run for profit. As such, they should feel themselves privileged and honored. For it is not every profit-making enterprise that is so obviously and spectacularly positioned to do well by doing good, to profit from building, expanding, and maintaining the data-driven, freedom-enriching, life-improving infrastructure of civilization.
The price of such profound privilege and honor?
To profit by delivering technological excellence and continual innovation in the service of all the civilization-affirming values the Internet, at its very best, empowers and enhances. This calls for a vision of national and global corporate citizenship that works for the good of all and never willfully leaves any customers or potential customers to fend for themselves in a digital network along which the controllers of some nodes are careless, or arrogant, or avaricious, or misguided, or unwise, and others are simply malicious.