Which tech companies are willing to say they will not cooperate with the government on a massive civil rights violation?
The Intercept's Sam Biddle approached nine tech companies that the government might solicit or compel to help if it decided to build a database of Muslims living in the US. He gave them two weeks to respond to this question: “Would [name of company], if solicited by the Trump administration, sell any goods, services, information, or consulting of any kind to help facilitate the creation of a national Muslim registry, a project which has been floated tentatively by the president-elect’s transition team?”
Twitter said no, unequivocally. Microsoft and former Edward Snowden employer Booz Allen Hamilton declined to comment. Facebook, IBM, CGI, Google, Apple, and SRA International did not respond.
Twitter has a history of resisting government requests for information — at least more so than other Silicon Valley companies with large user bases — and announced in November that developers were prohibited from using its data for surveillance. Apple recently indicated it might start pushing back against this too, with its mighty battle against the FBI's order to crack an iPhone owned by a mass shooter in California. (Facebook, on the other hand, is spineless.)
Why bother asking a hypothetical gotcha question like this, especially given that the relevant proposals floated by the incoming Trump administration are unlikely to produce the comprehensive Muslim phone-and-address book sort of database that many in the public are imagining?
"Even on a purely hypothetical basis, such a project would provide American technology companies an easy line to draw in the sand — pushing back against any effort to track individuals purely (or essentially) on the basis of their religious beliefs doesn’t take much in the way of courage or conviction, even by the thin standards of corporate America," Biddle wrote.
The question is a specific, measurable proxy for the greater question of how far Silicon Valley companies are willing to go to cooperate with government surveillance. It's important for the historical record, it's important for accountability, and it's important for users considering where to hand over their data.