When former National Security Agency contractor Ed Snowden exposed the inner workings of the country's biggest intelligence organization, he said he did so to roll back a spying apparatus that put the United States on the path to "turnkey tyranny."
But his revelations could end up having the opposite effect. Instead of declawing a single surveillance state, Snowden's leaks could ironically wind up enhancing government spying around the globe.
According to experts who are advising U.S. email, cloud data storage, and social media companies, executives are concerned that foreign governments -- particularly ones with fewer protections for personal privacy and free speech -- are already beginning to demand that U.S. tech companies relocate their servers and databases within their borders. Under normal circumstances, companies would rarely comply with those migration demands, especially if those countries have reputations for heavy-handed internal policing. But now that the United States is being seen as a global spying power, they may have little choice.
Other governments can make their relocation demands in the name of protecting citizens from the intrusive powers of the NSA. Then those regimes can use U.S. tech to make their own law enforcement and intelligence agencies more NSA-like.
"Despite Snowden's sensational revelations, data will not be better protected outside the U.S. in countries where privacy is aspirational at best," said Al Gidari, a lawyer with the firm Perkins Coie who represents companies on surveillance and communications law. "Data stored locally will be the fuel for corruption, abuse and repression in most of those countries, especially in those countries that are complaining the loudest about U.S. surveillance activities."
This week, Brazil's communications minister said that Internet service providers may now be required to store information locally following reports that NSA has spied on communications in Brazil and across Latin America.
"The ideal thing would be for these companies to keep their data in the country so it can be available should Brazil's justice system request it," Paulo Bernardo Silva said in an interview with a Brazilian newspaper. Silva described local control of data as a matter of national sovereignty.
Companies that provide cloud computing services are facing particular scrutiny abroad. Their business is to store large amounts of sensitive information about foreign individuals and companies on servers that are located in United States. And there is a growing perception that this infrastructure is firmly within the grip of the U.S. intelligence agencies, several experts said. That impression is not diminished when U.S. officials, attempting to mollify domestic critics, argue that the NSA is only interested in monitoring foreigners.
Over the past few years, overseas governments have increased pressure on marquee technology companies to hand over more data about their customers and to comply with official orders that would be deemed unconstitutional in the United States.
In 2011, Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, gave the government of India access to its consumer and messaging services, in response to authorities' concerns that they would not be able to monitor criminals and other threats communicating over the company's networks. Officials had threatened to cut off access to the company's services inside their country if RIM didn't comply. The company ultimately agreed to allow India's security agencies to intercept emails and other messages.
Last year, the Google executive in charge of the company's business operations in Brazil was arrested after the company failed to comply with a government order to remove YouTube videos critical of a local mayoral candidate. Google, which owns YouTube, said it wasn't responsible for the content that users post to the video sharing network.
It wasn't the first time the company had run up against aggressive policing of information that would be protected under the First Amendment in the United States. In 2011, Google removed profiles from its Orkut social-networking system after a court order deemed them politically offensive. And another order told the company to take down thousands of photos from one of its sharing sites.