According to various media reports, a turning point for French politicians was the year 2013, when ex-NSA staffer Edward Snowden made a series of revelations that US intelligence was spying on foreign leaders and had the capability to access data stored on private companies’ clouds.
Sputnik discussed the issue with John Lloyd, chief technology officer at Casaba Security Singapore-US; Lars Hilse, a digital strategy consultant from Germany; Fow Chee Kang, associate director and managing consultant of LGMS, and Kevin Curran, professor of cyber security at the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Built Environment at Ulster University.
Sputnik: Google holds a great deal of detailed information on users. France and Germany have designed Qwant as a replacement. How safe is this system compared to Google?
John Lloyd: I think “safety” isn’t the right comparison to make. Google is “safe” for the average user and doesn’t pose any security risks for basic tasks.
All major search engines offer the ability to browse and search anonymously but few people use those features. Sites like Qwant serve the market segment that desires privacy by default in exchange for a slightly less convenient browsing experience.
Lars Hilse: There are multiple angles, which have to be taken into consideration… Yes, Google, and other search engines, hold a significant amount of information on users.
Those users complaining about that fact forget that all searches they submit are free. So are pretty much all other products Google provides. Providing these services requires a significant amount of infrastructure. And of course a significant work force.
All of this has to be paid for, which happens in this case, through the placement of individualised advertisements Google serves to the user through a search. Would Google not take the data to place these highly individualised advertisements, users would not click on them, and ergo they couldn’t attract so many advertisers, which in turn would jeopardise the business model entirely.
Whether or not Qwant is an adequate replacement leaves to be seen. In any case, any search engine costs money. On the other hand, users have become accustomed to get all online-services free of charge.
As for the safety angle: unlike many other companies, Google hasn’t had a significant breach to report on in their history. Lest we forget that all this content, which is available free thanks to Google (Google Scholar, Google Books, etc.) gives ample opportunity to every user to tap into pretty much every book on the planet, free of charge.
Fow Chee Kang: In cybersecurity point of view, its just another system that get own of your data other than Google, the system may be good in protecting digital sovereignty, however, if the system has not been tested via proper security testing by certified firm, it may ends up exposing all its users information like what we have seen in the past few years when giant technology companies system get compromised.
Kevin Curran: This is not a surprise. Google services hold an incredible array of details on individuals and when you apply that to soldiers or people working in foreign intelligence, then the data Google stores on them can be the only system that a foreign adversary needs to tap.
People forget that Google services store a person’s complete location history, search history, apps used, and footprint online. No other company holds as much sensitive data.
Even if Google could be proven not to allow backdoors in, having that information on an army or agency workers stored by Google is a weak part in any country defence initiatives. I suspect other countries will follow this move by France.
Sputnik: In 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was spying on foreign leaders, which led France to protect its digital sovereignty. Which European countries might follow France’s lead?
John Lloyd: All countries should make the protection of critical digital infrastructure a national security concern. Our world is too connected to think otherwise.
Lars Hilse: We see a lot of movements towards more privacy on the web. What users fail to recognise is that this will come at a price. Less data leads to less targeting on advertisements, which in turn makes the offers of providers less interesting to advertisers, which inevitably leads to less revenue for the online providers, which then comes back to the users as services of lesser quality.
If the users are willing to sacrifice this in favour of more privacy is up to them. This privacy hype is a European thing, without wanting to take the consequences into account. With the introduction of the revised EU-GDPR, hosting providers outside of the EU offered their customers turnkey packages to lock users from the EU out of their services entirely.
So whether France’s approach is correct or not leaves to be seen. Fact is, what the NSA did with foreign leaders is referred to as espionage, and “legitimate”. What they did with the data of conventional people is a violation of article 12 of the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
Fow Chee Kang: The initiative by France may be a good begin, but it may not be easy for a country to kick start and reinvent the wheel. If this initiative by France proved to be a success in protecting its digital sovereignty, we may soon see other developed European countries follow its step, with high possibility using the same system instead of creating another Qwant.
Sputnik: Are there any other ways to resist domineering American and Chinese companies?
John Lloyd: Make better products and services. The network effect is a powerful advantage for incumbent service providers. Take Facebook: The site has an average global market penetration of between 30 and 40 percent.
That number rises to above 70% in some developed markets. Your domestic service needs to have some amazing hook to justify a user moving to a network with less social reach. Just being localised isn’t enough.
VK and Odnoklassniki provide an objectively better experience for Russian speaking users yet 60+% of Russians use YouTube and nearly 40% also maintain a Facebook account.
Lars Hilse: Europe would have to move away from the desire to have it both ways. Either you sacrifice parts of your privacy, and get your services for free. Or you pay for the services you want to consume, and remain somewhat private.
Privacy isn’t a thing you can be guaranteed; particularly not on the internet. You have to know what you’re doing, and if you do you can have a very low profile on the web. For European companies to compete against those from the US and China, a new Zeitgeist would have to surface. A lot of entrepreneurship has to be present for tech companies to arise and compete against the existing tech giants.
Fow Chee Kang: At the moment it is rather difficult to resist dominance of American and Chinese companies in terms of technology devices. As everyone may have aware, majority of the devices connected to Internet are either made in China or designed in USA, though it does not means these companies are actively collecting user information, they are still playing an important role to create device that transmit, process and store user information.
Sputnik: What is your take on France’s chances in protecting digital sovereignty? (Considering total domination of US-based companies). In which areas is it possible?
Lars Hilse: France is different in many ways. And while we’re all moving to make the world a global village there will always be people who think they know better, and that we should protect national interests.
With the introduction of the web we have seen that we can communicate freely, across borders with little limitations. With the advent of cryptocurrency the first concept of a true, global currency was born.
And that it’s outside the reach of governments states another strong point. I think we cannot demonise the efforts of the US and China for data control. If other countries would have a shot at this, they’d take it also.
In conclusion, I’m not a Google fanboy. In fact, some of the things they are definitely worth criticising and require a lot of scrutiny. Yet the debate over getting a complex, and highly effective service free of charge, and then complaining about the fact that I pay in data, rather than currency, bothers me. Significantly.
Fow Chee Kang: It is possible if France refer to the steps taken by China government, where a dedicated social media platform being created for their citizen, secured technology devices (such as modem, router, appliance) being designed and made in France instead of using other countries’ devices, until then, the digital sovereignty protection in place may be considered as minimal.
Nevertheless, France will still unable to control the data flows out from the country being captured by technology devices that are created by American/Chinese companies.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.