Should Businesses Be Concerned about NSA Snooping?

The controversies surrounding government surveillance aren’t just a problem for U.S. citizens and the tech companies accused of participating in data collection efforts. In short, yes, business leaders in the U.S. should have very real concerns surrounding NSA snooping because these programs damage public trust and create international distrust that can cause major business deals to fall through. One of the most notorious examples occurred in late 2013, when Brazil passed on Boeing's defense contract bid, selecting the Swedish company Saab instead for the $4.5 billion contract. This enormous loss has been attributed to the NSA spying tensions. These events can take a toll on consumers and companies at the social and political levels, which is why it's important for business leaders to have a keen eye on the latest NSA news.

Consumer Fears

It's no surprise that consumers are becoming increasingly wary of sharing information with companies, especially since whistleblowing efforts have pointed fingers at a wide variety of telecom and tech companies for participating in snooping efforts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes how the government sent requests to Sprint, MCI, and AT&T requesting consumer call records and digging into the details of our private lives. A Harris Poll reveals that the NSA snooping revelations have damaged public trust in a variety of online arenas, including social media, banking, and e-commerce. According to the results, about 26% of respondents have reduced their online shopping after the Snowden leaks. There's no doubt about it -- many Americans have become disillusioned with privacy systems online, and it might be taking an unprecedented toll on our economy. The backlash of NSA snooping has broad implications, creating a climate of fear and distrust between companies that operate online and the public. Some companies continue to deal with these repercussions, attempting to strengthen trust surrounding private data security.

The Business Ethics of Data Access                                             

Worried customers aren't the only issue business owners have to worry about in the post-Snowden era. Leaders have to wonder just how safe their business-critical information is, especially when the NSA comes knocking on the door asking for customer data. How should companies respond in a world where the federal government doesn't have qualms about scrutinizing private digital activities? Business owners that simply shrug the revelations off with a "We've got nothing to hide" attitude are missing the point.

After news hit the wires regarding the PRISM surveillance program, multiple companies spoke up, insisting that they refused to comply with NSA requests for customer data. These corporations had to take a stance and differentiate themselves from the tech companies implicated by whistleblowers. One of the companies that spoke out and against NSA tactics was IBM. This is particularly noteworthy, since this corporation is responsible for an overwhelming amount of business data, due to their enterprise and SMB cloud computing solutions. In an open letter to clients, IBM Senior Vice President Robert Weber tried to assuage fears by stating, "IBM has not provided client data to the National Security Agency (NSA) or any other government agency under the program known as PRISM." Weber noted that IBM does not act as an intermediary source of private data, and that the company "would expect that government to deal directly with that client," instead of asking tech companies to breach trust.

In a world that is run increasingly by data, how do everyday business owners face the idea that the government might request private consumer information? Business leaders must come to terms with whether they'll comply and risk being exposed during whistleblowing operations, or refuse compliance protect consumer trust.  

International Tensions

The embarrassment of NSA spying allegations can impact the way companies do business abroad. While the Brazil air defense deal was an extremely obvious slap in the face, it's hard to tell how many other relationships have soured due to concerns about privacy. You don't have to Google very far to find other examples of large companies declining to partner with the U.S. After news broke about wiretapping campaigns that targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel, German official announced that they were cancelling a contract with Verizon. U.S. business leaders who travel abroad to broker deals must be hyperaware of these events, because they can shape the way prospective international partners see us.

It's hard to tell how long the NSA fiasco will continue to ripple across business sectors. Organizations must continually repair and maintain consumer trust, which has been crippled on a national scale due to the recent buzz about the NSA and PRISM. Business leaders, especially those with a stake in e-commerce or international relations, should remain acutely aware of current privacy news regarding NSA spying. Some companies will make the decision to go public about their commitment to consumer privacy, following the example set by IBM. Ultimately, the privacy breaches perpetrated by the U.S. government will continue to have long lasting consequences on the way we do business.

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