Buying into Big Brother

June 12, 2013

Whatever high crimes and misdemeanors the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden may or may not have perpetrated, he has at least in one regard done us all a favor. He has reminded us that we are all victims of unwarranted and inexcusable invasions of privacy by companies who collect our data as they do business with us.

Some, like Google and Facebook, pose primarily as software companies when their main revenue source, and their main business, is to mine data and sell advertisers access to customers. We knew this already, of course, though it seems many of us would prefer to forget the true nature of the technology firms that have boomed in the last decade. Seduced by their dazzling baubles, we have bought in to Big Brother without truly understanding the true price we are paying and will continue to pay for access to their brave new world.

We may take pity on the idiot schoolboy who uses expletives on Twitter or posts a picture of himself holding a joint at a party only to discover when he looks for a job that a trawl by an HR department has made him unemployable. But even smart people — like the New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, who sent lewd pictures to strangers — can remember too late that in this wired world we are all being recorded all the time. Yet there is little legal protection from abuse by the companies who collate our personal data and store it for eternity.

One likely outcome of Snowden’s leak will be that the federal government has to justify its intrusions and maybe even show a prima facie case against an individual or groups before it gathers their data. There is no such move to ensure that pernicious data mining for commercial or private purposes will be similarly controlled. Primitive tribesmen, on seeing a camera for the first time, often balked at having their picture taken for fear it may steal their souls. Using the Internet is the same, except we know for certain that the price of going online is to lose all shred of confidentiality.

The record of internet companies who ruthlessly peddle our private concerns and personal details to advertisers is hardly encouraging. Every time a social network changes its inaptly named “privacy” policies, always by way of “explanation” in the finest of fine print littered with incomprehensible Orwellian “Newspeak,” it compromises our private lives even more aggressively.

The law appears to have little to say about such intrusion, though the mere act of owning a phone or a laptop is to invite an anonymous snooper into our homes to log in detail what books we are reading, what music we are listening to, what movies we are watching, what friends we are meeting, what thoughts we are thinking, the better to sell information about our domestic habits. What legal guarantees are there that details gleaned from our online purchases by audacious demands for extraneous personal information, including age, gender, and sometimes even race, will not be sold to a company we dislike, a political movement we disagree with, or a foreign country we once fled? Where are the laws that extend the principles of privacy of the home to the privacy of our domestic lives lived on the Internet?

The common wisdom emerging from the Snowden and NSA saga is that public good should generally be disparaged, even when defending us from terrorism, while private interest should always be lauded. It is interesting to learn from Snowden that his political hero is Ron Paul, once the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate and the crabby libertarian outlier in the 2012 Republican primaries. Paul was quick to praise Snowden’s betrayal of NSA secrets, saying he was “heroic” and had “done [Americans] a great service.”

Paul’s son Senator Rand Paul betrays a similar devotion to conservative/libertarian theorists such as Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek. It was amusing, then, to hear the libertarian Rand Paul, in condemning the NSA’s overreach, invoking the name of George Orwell, a democratic socialist whose works exposing the mundane horrors of authoritarianism such as Animal Farm and 1984, have lifted him into the western pantheon. In 1944, Orwell reviewed Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, the tome that has been adopted as a sacred text by libertarians for suggesting that the larger the state the more likely tyranny will emerge.

“Collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisition never dreamed of,” Orwell wrote. But, he added, “Hayek … does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.” Seventy years ago, Orwell grasped that, while state power can and should be tempered by democracy, private companies are too often let off the hook.

“Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly,” Orwell continued, “but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.” Orwell was on to something.

Missing from the debate about the size of government that grips the dominant, libertarian wing of the Republican Party is the tendency in private industry to treat its workers and customers tyrannically. Anyone who has dealt with a bank, or a mortgage company, or a cable business, or a health insurance company, or tried to complain to any “service” department — “Can I leave you on hold  . . . indefinitely?” — will know that too many companies have contempt for those who provide them with profits.

Anyone who has worked for a corporation has witnessed the petty tyrannies imposed by bullying managers, the ritual humiliation or sexual exploitation of workers, the reneging on promises and denial of the fulfillment of employment contracts, and all the tricks played by despotic companies through their legal departments. Again, the law has little to say about such excesses and proves hard to implement even when, as in sexual harassment and racial discrimination cases, evidence of abuse is clear. Whistleblowers who call out public sector wrongs are often hailed as heroes; those who point out private excesses are invariably traduced and fired.

There are a myriad examples of such private sector wrongdoing, but let me cite one in the current headlines. In Britain, banks have been prosecuted for illegally selling expensive unnecessary “payment protection insurance” to unwitting customers in that tried-and-tested inertia-selling scam whereby a tiny box has to be ticked, or not ticked, to avoid payments being automatically added to the monthly charges.

Lloyds employed the respectable accountants Deloitte to refund money to those who had not asked for such a service — the compensation to customers at Lloyds alone has so far reached $10.4 billion — but Deloitte taught its staff to resist legitimate claims by obfuscation, based on the assumption that if a repayment is too troublesome or complex to claim, customers soon give up. We have all been there.

Public companies are meant by law to be democratically run, with shareholders holding directors to account. In practice, however, they are all too often private fiefdoms. Even opinion formers, such as the New York Times, News Corporation, and Koch Industries, are structured to be privately run by tight-knit families who have little concern for the views of shareholders or anyone else.

We all use Orwell’s phrase “Big Brother” to describe an overweening state. Just as telling about the way big government and big business treat small people, however, is Orwell’s satire on fake democratic slogans: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Laura Wood of Skoob Books poses for a photograph with a copy of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in central London June 9, 2013.  REUTERS/Toby Melville


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which animal is the press, doj came knowing on your door..oppos the back door. that makes us THE SAME?

Posted by savathia | Report as abusive

Well said. In the end there has to be a balance. There must be some reach. However, where it has gone now is clearly ‘overreach’.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Excellent observations, Mr. Wapshott.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Great post. I especially appreciate the reminder that there’s a hidden cost to all that cool “free” stuff we get from Google, Facebook, and other advertising companies. Over 90% of Google’s revenue comes from ads and advertising is Facebook’s only real product.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive