Surveilling a double standard

June 14, 2013

As the week continues, so does the furor over the government’s electronic and big data surveillance. It’s largely framed in the terms that President Obama described on June 7th: “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” That observation may be true, but we are approaching this issue 100 percent wrong.

We should all “welcome” a healthy debate — as the president says he does — on vital questions of freedom versus security, safety versus privacy, and which is our priority. Such debate is a hallmark of a functional democracy. We should not accept, however, that what’s at issue here is American freedom versus potential Big Brother government tyranny. That’s too narrow a parameter. What’s really evident: we’re willing to give private corporations data, but we refuse to offer government agencies the same courtesy. That contradiction highlights a muddled, overwrought and inconsistent attitude towards privacy and freedom.

Privacy has rarely existed; it doesn’t now, and it didn’t way back when. It is more of a Platonic ideal than a lived reality. Most of human history lived in small communities. There was no Internet, no electronic surveillance of communications, no Big Brother fears of an all-seeing digital eye scanning our private lives. But there were still neighbors, who were right there, and family, and shared, cramped living. Not much privacy there or room for behavior that deviated much from whatever the norm was. Remember The Scarlet Letter? The Crucible? Think there was much privacy in Massachusetts Bay in 1650?

Times and mores change. We have come to expect a level of control over the details of our lives, and we are suspicious of attempts to breach the walls of privacy that some of us construct.

Yet for all of the legitimate concerns about government intrusions on personal privacy, Americans today — along with many people worldwide — surrender vast amounts of personal information to companies and seem quite prepared to surrender even more if it adds to the enjoyment and reduces the friction of myriad transactions that are part of everyday life.

The most voracious collectors of information are not the U.S. government nor China. They are the companies doing business online. The metadata that the NSA wants is also metadata every marketer at every company wants. That makes the data collected online about each of us by companies every bit as intrusive as what the NSA collected. After all, some of the data the NSA collected came from companies such as Google and Facebook.

Those companies make their own use of the information, and retail companies make even more use of the “cookies” placed passively on our computers that allow for myriad ways to track purchases, which websites we visit and for how long. Many companies then sell that data to marketing firms that then sell their analysis of that data to other companies that want to sell to us. One of those firms, Acxiom, did more than $1 billion in revenue last year. Another company, Palantir, has been a rising star in selling its services to the U.S. government to assist the government in data mining.

Even companies that do not sell their data to third parties, Amazon especially, make intensive use of personal information in order to sell more effectively. Hence Amazon or Netflix and any number of social media sites being able to suggest to us “what we might like” based on their extensive database of what we have already liked and purchased and browsed.

Government’s passive use of our data leads to apoplectic warnings of a surveillance state, Big Brother and the death of freedom and privacy. Corporate’s active use of our data, however, seems to lead to a collective desire to share even more in order to help companies tailor their products and services evermore to our needs.

What explains this dichotomy? The fact that Amazon can’t send SWAT teams to your home, seize your computer and possessions and throw you in jail is one reason. We fear the abuses of government because government has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and we are rightly cautious about that being abused.

But the level of corporate online intrusions into our private lives far surpasses anything government is doing in the United States. We allow that to be the case every time we shop online. Yet it is equally true that we “allow” the NSA to access our data because we voted for representatives who then authorized it. The difference is we seem to have buyer’s remorse about government, and very little when it comes to companies.

In fact, judging from the behavior of tens of millions of us online, privacy not only has little value, but it is actively rejected, nothwithstanding occasional outcries over Facebook’s privacy settings and polices. This is especially true for a younger generation that is growing up with these technologies, using them avidly and valuing privacy far less. For the most part, we want the connection and the ease that sharing our information provides in the commercial sphere, or at least that’s what our behavior suggests.

Privacy, therefore, isn’t nearly as valuable to us as the current outcry over the NSA would suggest. Until we address our rather schizophrenic attitudes – take my data if you’re Facebook; leave it alone if you’re the government – we’re unlikely to come up with coherent policies that draw those vital lines between security, privacy and freedom that we claim to hold so dear.

Editor’s note: Want more about the double standard? Watch Zachary Karabell interview David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect:

PHOTO: An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.  REUTERS/NSA/Handout via Reuters


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These beliefs are not incoherent or inconsistent in the least. You said it yourself: companies do not have the same power or force that governments do – if they did, do you really think people would be alright with corporations taking data? Hint: no they wouldn’t. The difference is between having the power to use force, so ignoring this massive difference and then claiming people are being inconsistent is completely illogical. We don’t mind giving up personal information when we don’t see any way for it to be abused, and so being comfortable with corporations but uncomfortable with governments is a legitimate concern.

I also disagree with your notion that people are clamoring for companies to have gather information on its customers. If they came up with new processes that gathered information on us for the benefit of an improved customer experience many people might be okay with that – but it’s not as if we’re absolutely begging them for more personal data collection.

Posted by matt416 | Report as abusive

right speak is good speak…..

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Anyone who was paying attention knew that NSA was collecting lots of information but the scale upon which the scheme seems to operate is astounding. No one company has access to the amount of data that NSA is apparently collecting. Does it really need to be secret in order to be effective?

Posted by joebenlabrant | Report as abusive

It’s a matter of personal choice. Where I have the opportunity to refuse to give data to a corporation, the government via my tax returns, 1099’s, bank statements, etc. requires the data be made available with or without my consent.

It is also important to note that should a corporation violate the terms of privacy associated with the use of my personal information I have recourse and in most cases I would win in court.

With a government agency, there is little, if any recourse no matter how egregious the offense. Furthermore, in the case of an IRS audit I am guilty until I can prove my innocence AND I have absolutely no recourse to recover the costs of proving that innocence. Notwithstanding the fact that if I had five IRS agents interpret any one of the 72,000 pages of tax code they could never agree on how to calculate my liability. And, even if they (eventually) arrived at agreement, a sixth agent in Ogden UT would take exception.

And, as evidenced recently, government employees have zero concept of privacy and non-disclosure, re the EPA publishing the confidential information of farmers and giving it to another private (political) organization.

Please explain again why citizens would be so accommodating.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Simple. As much as we love to hate corporations, we know that they can not use the information we give them to REALLY hurt us. All they do with that info is try to make a profit and that’s ok with the majority of people. But the same can not be said of the government which can be infiltrated by bad people with bad intentions seeking to cotrol or hurt people. In a democracy People should be free to exercice their free will when dealing with private or public entities, especially when it comes to issues related to privacy and personal identity.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

It is one thing to willingly give a corporation or entity your information but entirely different when your own government sets up a secret court, secret surveillance and spies on your phone calls, emails (private conversations) and more.

When it comes to government, it has the census but evidently that isn’t enough – it has to secretly spy in order to obtain even more information on what we think, what we say, what we do in our daily lives. Fear and intimidation and spying – three tools of our government and it uses them daily.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Schizo indeed Zach. But I think the definitions are changing quickly, and good people are recognizing that good behavior and transparency pays off. I also think the outrage trends older, and the younger “mobile natives” are less bothered.

Take @trustcloud for example. Tens of thousands of people meticulously curate their entire online data in one place, and get scored like FICA on trustworthiness.
For a younger genration, that’s becoming more relevant than a credit check.

Posted by MilesFSpencer | Report as abusive

Previous posts make an excellent point about the difference between government and corporations, and I see the difference.

But the 2nd Amendment was to prevent the government from using/abusing its citizens and to guarantee their privacy. I agree with that.

Those who are now screaming that the government is infringing on their 2nd Amendment rights forget that what Obama is doing is perfectly legal, and the corporations that are assisting him are happy to comply.

Many of the House and Senate members who voted for The Patriot Act are now the very ones – STILL IN OFFICE – who are crying for Obama’s head on a platter as flying in the face of the Constitution. And many people don’t stop to think about that. Amazing.

And if anyone thinks that Obama is the only President who took advantage of TPA, you’re not thinking clearly. Bush and his administration were just more covert, and the Democrats dropped the ball in exposing him. But then many Democrats voted in TPA as well.

Obama is exercising his legal right, compliments of George Bush and the Congress in 2001. Squeals of indignation and outrage are purely political maneuvering and posturing. We’ll all hear about it in the next race.

Obama will not be elected in 2016 of course, but it’s still a fight between Dems and Reps, so this is all a political set up for the Republicans’ 2016 platform. I mean, saying that 47% of the American people are “takers” didn’t work so well for them. Gotta come up with something better.

Should they take the White House, TPA will still be legal, and our privacy will still be compromised at every opportunity, and corporations who basically control government now will be more than happy to supply government with whatever info they request.

Freedom, once lost, is damned hard to recover.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

There is a small difference between Google trying to sell you an advert and men in black kicking in your front door.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive