America · Computers

“It didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted”

We’ve recently been told quite a lot about the activities of the US National Security Agency in monitoring internet communications. Much of it could be described as “stuff you might have feared, but that’s a bit depressing to have confirmed”.

For people outside the US, one perhaps surprising thing is that the US government seems happy to say the NSA’s surveillance programmes are OK because they are only aimed at non-Americans.

It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted.

— US administration official quoted at

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time.

For people outside the US who have been encouraged over many years to use American internet and cloud-hosting companies, it comes as a bit of a surprise not just that the US government feels this way but that it is so unashamed about it.

Although the details about NSA snooping are new(ish), this principle isn’t a new one. It turns out it’s normal for constitutional safeguards not to apply to non-Americans, even when they are using the services of US companies. A current case:

Chevron… is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted.

Now this one has nothing to do with the NSA; it’s about gathering evidence for a court case. The only reason it is considered news is because the opposition argues that the hosting service didn’t know for sure that its users were not Americans.

This is so problematic not because the US necessarily behaves worse than any other country—I suspect it has better oversight in place, for its own citizens, than the UK—but because people like me from outside the US have got used to thinking of US-based hosting, services and companies as the norm in the Internet world.

This attitude long pre-dates pervasive cloud computing. Hotmail, the example above, has been one of the world’s most popular email hosting providers for around 15 years, with (I’m guessing) a couple of hundred million users outside the US.

But it’s quite a problem now that cloud hosting is routinely used to store business data and private documents. And it seems obviously problematic for EU-based businesses, which have a legal obligation to follow data protection rules that presumably don’t include sending their customer data off to a country whose government is unapologetic about taking a copy of it, just in case.


I’ve been a bit prickly about the USA and Americans a few times before on this blog. That prickliness has the same cause: I’m sensitive about having become so dependent on American companies and attitudes myself. I have grown used to engaging with American companies, working methods, and laws, almost more than those of my own country, and certainly more than those of other European countries. That has a lot to do with the USA’s historical reputation as a stable, reliable democracy with visible workings, answerable to a relatively incorruptible legal system.

But this dependency increasingly seems just perverse.

I have become used to giving all my personal and business records to companies that have promised to make it all available to a spy agency run by a foreign government that openly declares it has no interest at all in my rights.

Why would anyone want to do that?

Crap Things from Big Companies

SkyDrive: OK, let’s face it, it’s a bit pants

This is the second time I’ve been forestalled in writing a positive note about Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud storage and apps service, by going to the site and finding it isn’t actually working at all:

I hadn’t asked for Hotmail. This is just where the site redirected me when I tried to log in to SkyDrive on my phone.

I must say this is nicely fitting, in light of Microsoft’s recent attack on the unpredictability of Google Docs: “Different… better… completely gone…” Perhaps they decided it was time to get ahead in the race to “completely gone”.

It’s a pity, as I kind of liked SkyDrive. I evaluated Office365 for business purposes a year ago, but gave up on it when I found it included no way to download your files—perhaps that was intentional for purposes of corporate control, or perhaps it’s fixed now, but it doesn’t seem to have been an issue with the SkyDrive office apps. In many ways I prefer the interface to that of Google Docs, and I think of Microsoft as the underdog nowadays in a way that makes me (dangerously) more inclined to trust them. And in fact, I probably will continue to use SkyDrive for the odd thing.

But it’s clear now that Microsoft aren’t really all that great at keeping it running. I’m afraid, despite my liking for the service, that it does appear to be just a little bit pants.

Operating systems

Live Passport Net

Microsoft plans to drop Windows Live branding — Microsoft are apparently renaming their Windows Live user account system to “Microsoft Account”.

They’ve changed the name of this service a few times over the years. I first found myself with a Microsoft account in 1998 when Microsoft bought Firefly, an early music-discovery social network, and took over its user database. Firefly had already rather lost its original direction and had for some time been promoting its user database as a general-purpose online authentication product, called Passport.

The account login interface is one of Microsoft’s more consumer-visible products or services, and also one that is relatively easy for them to rename because, after all, nobody really chooses it for its brand name.

I think we can track the changing focus of the company through its names over the years:

  • Microsoft Passport (1998–2001): Gripped by fear of consumers moving many of their activities online, rendering Windows platform and applications less crucial: we need to get everyone using our service to manage their financial and identification needs.
  • .NET Passport (2001–2006): Corporate focus drifts from consumers (they’re ours, now) to developers. Wrap everything up in XML and sell it as a unified network ecosystem to bring ’em on board. Possibly a response to fear of Linux as a server platform, though as a Linux developer I might be overstating things.
  • Microsoft Passport Network (2006): I’m not quite sure where this one fitted in. Possibly a last-ditch attempt to get anyone other than Microsoft to use Passport by suggesting there could be such a thing as a community of sites built on it.
  • Windows Live ID (2006–2011): All hands on the Xbox, in response to a fear of getting squeezed out by initially single-purpose devices that begin to encroach on tasks previously carried out with a PC. A wave of newly capable consumer devices from other sources prompts a renewed focus on consumer appeal.
  • Microsoft Account (2012): The battle moves to the cloud! As Microsoft increasingly start to turn out applications for other operating systems besides Windows, the common theme is to ensure that the user is still part of the Microsoft “application platform” ecosystem, whether they are using Windows or not.

There’s been speculation that the forthcoming launch of the iPad 3 might see Microsoft release a version of Office for the iPad.

If this does come to pass, and Office ends up on the iPad, the one thing I really want to know is: will it sync with Microsoft’s SkyDrive, or with Apple’s iCloud?