November 13, 2014

Dr. King, Gov't Intimidation, and Competition in the U.S. Telecom Market

On November 12, 2014, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a spine-chilling piece titled FBI's "Suicide Letter" to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dangers of Unchecked Surveillance (linked), which reported on the recent publication of an un-redacted version of the infamous “suicide letter” from the FBI to Dr. King.

EFF reports that the letter, recently discovered by historian and professor Beverly Gage, aptly demonstrates “what happens when they [the intelligence agencies] take the fruits of the surveillance they’ve done and unleash it on a target."  The letter goes so far as to propose a date certain by which Dr. King should take his own life or face the public airing of his dirty laundry.

It is not my intention in this post to dive deep into what EFF and others (myself very much included) find so fundamentally disturbing about our past, present and future surveillance state.  Rather, my focus is more parochial, and, as is my wont in this blog, focused on my own recent experience in terms of the intersection of politics and commerce.

Obscene as the politically-inspired surveillance of Dr. King might have been – particularly in the context of his having somehow been deemed by someone to be some sort of threat to U.S. national security – equally or more egregious was the exercise of intense intimidation and threat of devastating results should Dr. King not buckle to the blackmail.

Regular readers might already surmise the parallel I’ll now draw, but please trust that I do so with sincere respect for Dr. King and not in any way wanting to diminish his legacy in drawing the analogy.  (Perfunctory disclaimer: Please recall that this is a personal blog reflecting my personal observations, in no way overseen, vetted or approved by my employer).

For the last few years, American telecommunications service providers - the folks who provide your cell phone service - have been denied the right to competitively provision their networks based on nebulous, never-substantiated “national security” concerns associated with China-based equipment vendors (an absurdity given that every vendor codes and builds in China, regardless of where based).

In the case of big carriers, the blackmail has been practically overt: High-level political engagement of C-suites marrying vaporous national security concerns to a warning – if you buy from “the Chinese” you’ll lose billions in federal revenues.  Pretty simple blackmail: With billions at stake, a carrier buckles and sacrifices the cost and consumer benefit of better and more affordable tech.

But with smaller, local carriers or non-telecom enterprises, the intimidation has been more insidious.  Distribution of propaganda through Regional Operations Intelligence Centers and threatening phone calls, e-mails and “agent” visits have all been used to chill commercial decisions and prospects of businesses over which the Government cannot as easily wield the direct threat of lost revenues.

The terror of ubiquitous surveillance aside, the question is, as Dr. Gage has wondered, whether agencies are acting “not to serve national security but to carry out personal and political vendettas.” The latter certainly seems the case – in geo-political terms – when it comes to strong-arming U.S. businesses away from competitive technologies based blindly on a vendor’s country of headquarters.