U.S. Markets closed

Mark Zuckerberg's Advice for the NSA: Communicate

Megan Garber

Last week, Facebook sued the federal government. "We are joining others in the industry," Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a post on the company's website, "in petitioning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to require the government to permit companies to disclose more information about the volume and types of national security-related orders they receive.” Why did the suit come on September 9, several months after the initial revelations of the NSA's dealings with tech giants and their data? Because there'd been a breakdown, it seems, of communication. "In recent weeks," Stretch wrote, "it has become clear that the dialogue with the U.S. government that produced some additional transparency at the outset is at this point unlikely to result in more progress."

In a conversation this afternoon with Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet, Zuckerberg elaborated on the suit. And he elaborated, too, on a comment he made at a conference last week: that "the government blew it" -- particularly when it came to communicating (or, in the NSA's case, failing to communicate) the revealed PRISM program to the public. “Some of the government’s statements have been particularly unhelpful,” Zuckerberg told Bennet. “Like, oh, we only spy on non-Americans.” (Facebook, of course, is a global brand.)

But the broader problem, as the CEO explained it, is the government's continued obfuscation of its programs, even after their revelation. It did a bad job, essentially, of explaining itself to an indignant public. "The more transparency and communication that the government can do about how they're requesting data from us," Zuckerberg said, "the better everyone would feel about it. Not only because I believe in transparency, but also because it would be in their interest in terms of resolving this on the Facebook side."

It would seem an irony, at first, that Zuckerberg would be criticizing the government's lack of transparency. Not only because the program was designed to be secretive, leading to some implicit challenges to sunlight, but also because Facebook, for much of its history, has itself been on the receiving end of complaints about violated privacy. Facebook, however, like its young founder, is growing up. It's evolving from a Silicon Valley startup -- hack things! break things! ask for forgiveness, not permission! -- into a creature whose blue-and-white arms wrap around the globe. In undergoing that transformation, the company has gotten very good at communication. It's adapted its ethos of publicness -- sharing as an activity that assumes an almost moral dimension -- into one of publicity. The company, in other words, has become savvy about strategic sharing. About PR.

In that sense, Facebook, which has learned the hard way about the restorative power of transparency, could be a fitting advisor to a government agency that has, in its own way -- possibly -- violated user privacy.

The government's main communication problem, Zuckerberg suggested, is a classic case of informational imbalance. The NSA knows everything about the PRISM program; we, the public, know almost nothing. And ignorance, as it so often does, engenders insecurity, which engenders mistrust: The public had no sense of the proportion of the government's PRISM requests, and that led, understandably, to widespread confusion. When it came to the PRISM requests made specifically of Facebook, Zuckerberg said, "you couldn't get a sense of whether the number is closer to 1,000 or closer to 100 million. Right? I mean, there's hardly any indication of what it was."

In Facebook's conversations with the government, then, "what we pushed for was, at least to start, can we release the aggregate number of requests that we get? And that includes both national security requests, which are confidential, and more day-to-day stuff." And the sum of those requests in the past half-year, Zuckerberg said, was around 9,000. "And that, I think, is very useful as a piece of information," he noted. "Because it tells you that it's a lot closer to 1,000 than it is to 100 million."

In other words, that little bit of information put the broad narrative of the PRISM program -- the sense many Americans had that Big Brother was watching them, vaguely and therefore extra-menacingly -- into perspective. It converted mistrust into data, gave a form to our nebulous knowledge. "I think people, otherwise, had no idea. I mean, is the government just trying to get access to every person's information?" Zuckerberg said. It is not, the government insists -- but it's hard to blame a revelation-weary public from making that assumption.

It's still unclear exactly how Facebook participates in PRISM, and it's likely that the suit filed against the FISC will reveal few details about the inner workings of the program. (In an appearance at a conference last week, Marissa Mayer noted that it would be "treason" for her to describe Yahoo's involvement in the program.) But the suit is its own form of communication -- a coded message to users that, as Zuckerberg reiterated today, "we view it as our job to protect all of the people that use Facebook." 

And that job involves communication: protecting people's sense of security in their digital environments as well as the data that inform those environments. Trust is its own kind of currency -- one whose value is paramount. Facebook tracks, intriguingly, user "trust" -- evidence of trust, apparently, as manifested through interactions. When Facebook has been criticized for privacy violations in the past, Zuckerberg said today, "what we found is that that stuff tends to not actually move the needle that much in the grand perceptions around trust." But "the NSA stuff did." And Facebook wasn't alone in that, it seems. The firm does similar tracking for fellow tech giants like Google and Twitter. And following the PRISM revelations, Zuckerberg said, "the trust metrics for all of them went down." 

More From The Atlantic