Friday, July 26, 2013

The Private Spy Network: You’re Afraid of the Wrong People

Ever since the whistleblower/traitor (take your pick) Edward Snowden brought to it to everyone’s attention that the United States Government was collecting data on American citizens exactly like they told us they were going to, folks have been a little touchy about government surveillance. Among the spying revelations, it has been brought to light that there’s even a secret big-but-not-as-big-as-originally-reported data facility in Utah that can pretty much store all data that man has ever created. Presumably the same storage space will be available in thumb drive size by next Christmas.
This is Larry Page, CEO of Google.
He knows everything about you.
Mostly because you told him.

In the midst of all this big brother panic, most people seem to be overlooking that the organization that has the most data on you isn’t the NSA, but likely a private company like Google or Facebook. Why is this? Because you keep giving them all your information! On a regular basis, we enter very real and personal information – our addresses and phone numbers, our interests and political views, compromising photographs and vacation plans – to the social networks. Many of us then use those same social network signins to gain access to other websites. Those websites then also get access to some of your information, not to mention the social networks gaining information about your activity on those websites you’re using them to sign in with.

Think about what has been the most destructive force to the American people in recent years. If you work really hard, you can try to blame Chris Dodd and Barney Frank for some of it, I guess. Really though, the most destructive force in peoples’ lives since 9/11 has been private corporations (mostly banks) taking advantage of folks’ desires to own houses and other property. The information that individuals keep willingly allowing private companies to collect (which we usually do not out of necessity but convenience) is a much clearer invitation to be taken advantage of or otherwise injured.

Let’s be honest about what the government can and will do with your personal information. They’re not going to march into the houses of gun owners and take their guns away. They’re not going arrest people for being anarchists (usually). At worst, you might be unfairly audited. If you’d like to test this theory, I encourage you to request your FBI file. I did this after being involved in student protest groups recognized by Mother Jones and being on the cover of a few newspapers bodyslamming an effigy of George W. Bush. My file was empty, and I was trying to get their attention.

Now let’s consider what happens when you give information to companies like Google. Look to the top or right of this article. There’s probably an ad there. Does that ad sound familiar? When I look at my page, I see ads for Johnston & Murphy and Frank & Oak. Why? Because I Googled men’s clothes and shoes recently, and Google remembered it when it gave me my ad placements. Granted, this is good business. They’re giving me what I’ve already articulated I want. But think about everything you’ve ever Googled. Think about everything you’ve ever searched or posted about. Google knows all of it. If you use Chrome, it even knows where you visit without searching. Ever been to ChatRoulette? Google knows. How about searching for a new job with a competitor when you’re already employed? Google knows. What are your weaknesses? The government might know, but if they do, Google definitely does.

And how about Facebook? What have you said or done on Facebook that could screw your life up. The answer, hopefully, is nothing, but if you’re concerned the government might have something they can hurt you with, it’s pretty likely they got it from a company like Facebook – a company you give data to. Admittedly, both Google and Facebook have voiced their concerns about NSA snooping. They are currently opposed to handing over their data to the government, but a cursory look at the way they advertise to us should tell us that they have no problem using it against you themselves, and their resistance to government data mining is only as good as Google's promise of "don't be evil," which they've been sort of flexible on lately

This isn’t to say I think the NSA is doing the right thing (though if you had a problem with it, we really could have used your help opposing it a decade ago). Nor am I saying you should stop giving private companies information to make your life easier. I like Google and Facebook most of the time. What I am saying is that we as a country need to start having a big-kid conversation about data, privacy, and how one is everywhere and the other is ending.

To be clear, nobody has the “right” to privacy in America. It’s a thing we used to sort of agree was important, and has been whittled away at for centuries now. But now, most of our information is already out there. You can get access to enough of someone’s personal information in most cases to open up a cable account in their name just by searching their names. In a lot of ways, this is a good thing. More sites are requiring you use your real name to do things, and people are way less likely to say horrible stuff to each other if their actual names and faces are next to the posts. Open- and crowdsourcing have done some amazing stuff to further technological solutions to real world problems. Crowdfunding through companies like Kickstarter makes it easier than ever for people to use stored information to fund projects and companies they like. Do we like this? Because we probably can’t have it both ways. Either things are easy and we have to trust parties both public and private with our information, or we need to stop willingly giving it to them.

The idea that the government shouldn’t have information that could be used to oppress you but will likely be either ignored or used to stop a crime but a private corporation who has no natural interest other than to take your money for a (hopefully) good product can is absurd. We all need to accept that the government is going to have access to our information because that information is out there already. It is thus our responsibility to remain a nation of laws, and to have those laws (many of which allow the government to do these things we’re all suddenly surprised and angry about) executed by good and capable people who we trust. How do we do that? We remain engaged in the democratic process, we vote our consciences and for the people we believe will do what is best for us, and when they violate that trust, we work to get them out of office.

There is no totalitarian state coming. There’s no need for one. The American system has functioned perfectly well doing things that people don’t want because people don’t hold them accountable. Hold them accountable and do the work and you can make them stop. The ones you can’t make stop are the companies, where votes are absolutely connected to dollars. Until we stop handing all our valuables over to them, we’re really in no position to get mad at the government for doing the same thing.

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