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Who's surveilling the surveillers?

A desktop screen at an office in Bangkok on June 25, 2013 displays the homepage for the Mozilla Firefox browser with a message for its users that says: 'Security and privacy are not optional. Stand with a broad coalition to demand that the NSA stop watching us: stopwatching.us', which links to a petition to the US Congress to end NSA monitoring.

The latest NSA revelations say the spy agency is able to peek inside much of the Internet traffic we think of as secure and encrypted. The news is rippling through the business world, causing some executives to rethink their security.

Of course, if a company is upset about NSA spies rifling through corporate data, there’s little it can practically do about it. CEOs can complain to Congress, but companies would go broke trying to match the NSA’s untold billions.

“China breaking into networks and, to a much greater extent, criminals breaking into networks is definitely something that companies spend a lot of money on,” says Thomas Ptacek of the corporate security firm Matasano. “I don’t think companies are going to spend money very differently based on the NSA disclosures.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re not freaked out. Mike Janke, CEO of encryption company Silent Circle, says clients, including some of America’s biggest companies, have been calling like crazy.

“The number one concern we hear over the last 12 hours is the revelation that the NSA is in the back door of the hardware,” he says.

He’s referring to news the NSA got U.S. tech firms to install so-called back doors in their products, secret features that allow the NSA in. Think of it like a pet door in a home. It’s only supposed to be for the dog. But if a raccoon finds that back door, it could crawl inside and make a real mess of the kitchen.

“The problem is it can get other people access to information, so it’s very worrisome,” says Johns Hopkins University encryption researcher Matthew Green.

He says the new has companies questioning their technology from American encryption firms.

“’How can we buy products that we can trust?’ Unfortunately that's a very bad thing for the U.S. tech industry, which is probably the biggest impact of these reports,” he says.

If companies worry about sneaky back doors for the NSA, they may not buy U.S. technology, hurting American business and jobs.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.
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