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The Scarlet & Black

The Snowden Proxy: If it ain’t broke: why you should be skeptical of Microsoft hosting Grinnell’s email

I don’t know anything about the nitty-gritty of Grinnell’s email infrastructure, but I’ve been told the servers are here.

The College is currently considering changing our email to a cloud server system called Microsoft Office 365. My understanding is that this would outsource our current infrastructure to one owned by Microsoft to exploit the economies of scale provided by the tech giant’s data centers.

That’s the theory at least. My high school economics teacher might remind us of the intangibles involved in such a decision. Here the major intangible, to my mind, is privacy.

The problem with hosting email on such servers is that they are fundamentally compromised. American tech companies, most importantly Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Apple, have been forced to hand over huge volumes of data to the National Security Agency (NSA), which has a director whose stated goal is to know everything. Everything, capital “E.” Not everything about “foreigners,” not everything about “terrorists,” but everything there is to know, in secret, and without a semblance of oversight as understood in most areas of government aside from “national security.”

This raises very real privacy concerns for the College, where intracampus email currently doesn’t cross the various switches that telecoms own. These telecoms also siphon even larger amounts of data from the backbone of the internet via specialized routers and other devices installed at the behest of the NSA with the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court has used an interpretation of the doctrine of “special needs” and expanded it beyond the original context of drug testing railway workers. Indeed, what is relevant in the collection of these massive amounts of data essentially amounts to everything there is to know. The relevance of a piece of data is determined, it seems, by its having been collected. Such is the circular logic of a security state.

I am of the opinion that my privacy begins where the relevance of any seizure of my affects or data to an investigation ends. However, we have let our entire lives become relevant to preventing terrorism and thus deferred our fourth amendment rights to the state in our online activities.

At the same time, market forces make the collection of this data through such murky means easier because our data is more concentrated than ever. We share our lives semi-publicly through social media, but we store much more “private” correspondence on email accounts. The concentration in the “big data” industry makes it that much easier for “big brother” to use flimsy justifications like national security to step into our lives in ways that simply weren’t possible in a world of paper and pens. One professor of computer science at the College has even gone back to using intracampus snail mail for these reasons. This suggests to me a deeper problem with our current infrastructure that is not within my technical grasp, but I am confident that changing to a cloud service from Microsoft is a step in the wrong direction.

My illusions of privacy may be just that, but those illusions persist because of the equally murky illusion of security. Just this week, al Shabaab terrorists operating out of Somalia, murdered dozens of innocent people at a mall in Kenya. Their deaths come despite the NSA’s crusading in the U.S. and violations of sovereignty abroad. Perhaps hacking into the core infrastructure of Kenya’s telecommunications, as the NSA did in Belgium, could have leveraged “big data” towards preventing such insanity, but I doubt it.  Forget the intangibles of privacy. Consider in this moment the tangible meaning of having a “war on terror.” We spend tens of billions of dollars as a country on these surveillance programs for security and will probably spend hundreds of thousands if not more on changes to our email infrastructure as a college, but I doubt we’re getting the benefits in either case.

Such institutional questions require us to engage as citizens and students in order to answer the rational question of who does benefit from the institutional changes. I am inclined to speculate that the so-called elites play a good faith role in both the national and local changes, but I am running into an information problem. A lack of transparency regarding the necessity of these changes requires an informed body politic to engage with the empowered and demand clear answers. If we, as a student body, cannot ask these questions about our emails then I wonder whether there is any hope of asking about them in a national context. In other words, use your rights or lose them.

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    MimosaNov 26, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Could someone recommend some other functional proxy servers, like CCProxy, and email servers, like AA Mail Server?