The Surveillance Contagion: Is There Such a Thing as Safe SaaS?

If you’re an American CyborgOrg, the terrorists may have already
won.

The CyborgOrg lives in the cloud. This isn’t metaphorical, or marketing hyperbole about a business trend. Housing the flesh of its employees has become an afterthought. Work from home, from a coffee-shop, from a squat like WeWork…

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No matter, because you’re working in the cloud.

And in the cloud, you’re flowing between applications—your contract and benefits live in WordDay; your salary, ADP; your project plan, Atlassian; your training, SkillSoft; your data, Box; your inventory, Oracle; your customers, Salesforce; your collaboration, Slack.

These are all SaaS platforms, i.e., CyborgOrgs who license their service to other CyborgOrgs like yours, so that you don’t have to keep your own records, maintain your own payroll, balance your own books, store your own data, track your own inventory, etc. The humans that used to punctuate organizational processes—the receptionist who greeted you; the postman who delivered your mail; the physical plant guy who brought you your desk chair, etc. —are all as anachronistic as the scissors and glue you used to use to cut and paste.

Instead, your CyborgOrg subscribes to these services in an arrangement that’s quietly revolutionizing the way sales and service arrangements are made.

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But this fundamental change in the transaction at the boundary between two organizations—the transaction of data and services across the increasingly porous boundary between CyberOrgs— might not be the most radical consequence of the SaaS revolution. No, like all desires—needs, wants, hungers—that we depend on an other to satisfy, our cloud-based, subscription services bring security risks, privacy concerns, and are ultimately mediated by laws and bureaucracies entirely inadequate to the complexity and ever-changing nature of these relationships.

Ultimately, this may have enormous, unforeseen consequences for the global economy. It’s one of history’s ironies that the origins most of these consequences are not, themselves, of the SaaS revolution; indeed, they precede it by a decade, originating in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Or, more properly, they originated in the massive powers to surveil given the US intelligence community following the attacks, and the Snowden revelations about the scope of this surveillance, and the depth of corporate collusion with it, twelve years later.

What does this have to do with SaaS software and global commerce, you ask? Since Snowden’s revelations, the EU has made several attempts to protect its citizens from vulnerability to such surveillance. While well-intentioned and needed correctives on the erosion of privacy rights, these attempts have been clumsy and ham-handed, outdated long before they were even released. They have either been circumvented or adhered to in overly-rigid ways, neither of which has done much for privacy in a rapid changing technological landscape. For all that, though, the simple fact remains that US government surveillance and the resulting EU regulations—have made it much harder for US companies to do business in the EU, and the consequences of this are felt worldwide.

This might seem like just comeuppance for US tech giants that colluded with the NSA and violated the privacy of their users, but here’s the rub: because we’re all networked, all our data is co-mingled, and all our services talk with each other, we’re all infected by the same contagion. I can be a designer of software to track the irrigation of hydroponic basil, but if I use an Intuit program for my taxes; Box for my backups; Salesforce to manage my accounts; Google for my email; etc, then I’m as tainted by the NSA as Yahoo or AT&T.

Thus, advantage EU-based hydroponic basil irrigation tracking software, so long as they use exclusively EU-based cloud services for their taxes, backups, bookkeeping, email, inventory, etc. Which, of course, they don’t.

Here’s the irony of the coming SaaS trade war, it’s the EU—the post-National, economic community nearly synonymous with a globalizing economy—that is analog—the unassimilable, unscalable, nondigital. Its Brussels bureaucracy is a museum piece, but one whose power persists, so long as the EU holds together.

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There are probably still scissors and glue in desk drawers in Brussels, too. Sitting at desks in Brussels cubicles is a modern wrench in the postmodern (on the heels of a premodern terrorist movement and the digital erasure of privacy in the flag waving jingoism of the Patriot Act). That bureaucrat hearkens back to Bartelby, preferring not to—in this case, preferring the CyberOrg not be completely untethered from the integrity of the human individual’s right to privacy.

The fly in the SaaS ointment is there’s no such thing as a neutral cloud, so as long as there are traces of humanity in the CyberOrg—protected DNA in among shared zeros-and-ones—then the patchwork of human history (in this case, pre-modern Al Qaeda ideology, meets modern political terrorism, in an internet age— will make messy what automation and algorithmization wants to smooth and erase.

Modern bureaucracy is hard to love—and torture for SaaS providers banking on a certain growth rate for the next round of investment—but the uneven biological imperfections of humanity, along with the patchwork tragedy of human history, may just be what saves us.

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