Mark Zuckerberg Called Obama About the NSA. Let's Not Hang up the Phone

Everyone should read the Facebook message by its boss to the NSA’s boss. Including those at Facebook grabbing your data

Let's applaud Mark Zuckerberg's increasingly public angst over the US government's sabotage of communications security, and the Internet itself. The Facebook founder's massively shared post Thursday afternoon shows progress since his first remarks on the subject just over a year ago, when he said the government "blew it" on security issues, largely by way of insufficient transparency about surveillance activities.

Now Zuckerberg has complained directly to President Obama about "the damage the government is creating for all of our future". When Facebook works to improve security, he wrote users, "we imagine we're protecting you against criminals, not our own government. The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat." (Do read the whole thing - it's not very long - before you continue reading this.)

We should applaud Zuckerberg not just for what he said but for the possible impact of his message. We need people like him to help explain why the National Security Agency - just one malefactor among an assortment of other security and law enforcement bodies here and abroad - has become at least as much a menace to our security as it is a protector.

Obama does Between Two Ferns. He does fancy fundraisers. He returns calls from celebrities, among others in the ranks of the rich and powerful - but not from journalists or the rest of us. And the president needs to hear Zuckerberg's words directly, and as often as possible: To keep the internet strong, we need to keep it secure.

Moreover, after what's sure to be millions of people who were otherwise not very engaged in the topic of internet security go ahead and read Zuckerberg's post, they may care just a bit more about what's being done to us all by our erstwhile protectors - not just by the criminals.

Yet there's another rational reaction to Zuckerberg's post, especially when you parse it carefully: a rueful chuckle at the missing elements, not to mention its outright hypocrisy.

I'm reminded of the semi-faux fury we heard from Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, over the NSA's literal wiretapping of its internal data systems. Google's business is based on surveillance - its own observation of its users - so it can lure more advertising customers.

Facebook is in a similar business. The social network is collecting vast amounts of data on its users and their online activities both inside its walled garden and, when they don't log out, via the nearly ubiquitous "Like" button (analogous to Google Analytics, which is also widely used by largely invisible to Web users). Who are the customers? Advertisers, for the most part.

I don't want to minimize the positive steps these companies have taken. It's great that both Facebook and Google - as well as Yahoo, which has been fighting in court for a long time now, and other big cloud companies - are working harder to keep rogue government agencies and criminals from hacking these giant databases.

It would be even better if they gave users a way to opt out entirely, because the government can still get the data via legal and quasi-legal means, even if the companies resist dragnet data collection. And because we have no way of knowing what kind of people will be running these enterprises in the future, not to mention what kinds of privacy-invading laws and regulations future governments may enact or concoct out of thin air.

The existence of these giant databases of our everyday lives is a threat, because history suggests that what can be misused ultimately will be misused.

So I have a simple request of Mark Zuckerberg, even if the chances he'll grant it are south of slim. Please give me the option of a paid Facebook account with at least these features:

a) Facebook Pro doesn't track me;

b) Facebook Pro stores zero data about me; and

c) Facebook Pro uses encryption in every possible way.

There's more I'd like to see, but that would be a good start.

Facebook has a partial template in-house. It just paid a staggering amount of money for WhatsApp, the mobile messaging service that purports to offer at least some of those features. I've been assuming that Facebook would ultimately apply its own revenue model - the users are the product - to WhatsApp. What if it did the reverse? Now that might be worth a standing ovation.

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