Do You Trust A Corporation More Than Your Government?

Several readers consider the question:

I, like you, am underwhelmed by the NSA revelations. Frankly, this is confirmation of what I’ve always thought since the Patriot Act was passed, and I personally believe anyone who thought otherwise is incredibly naive or fatally misinformed. Or both.

But here’s what I don’t get: the sudden consternation over this from libertarians. Really? You’re shocked – shocked! – to find that there’s data mining going on here? You have no problem voluntarily posting your life’s narrative and personal information on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, PayPal, etc., and you’re ticked at the federal government, which cannot get out of its own way?

Devil’s Advocate: We hand over our names, checking accounts, credit card numbers, social security numbers, birth dates, photos, interests, political leanings, browsing histories, etc. to hundreds – if not thousands – of private companies without batting an eye. We’ve been doing it for upwards of 20 years now. And now we suddenly get angry that the government can see that information? What about the companies themselves? It’s not like they have the best track record of “protecting” their customers over the past five to ten years. Where has the anger been over that?

Since when did we as a society place absolute trust in private companies, whose lone basic motivation is monetary profit, to handle our information better than the government?

I can do nothing to oust the CEOs of Facebook or Google. But I can change (or at least have a hand in changing) the CEO of the Federal Government once every four years, and the board members once every two years. A government’s overarching motivation, in my opinion, is to protect its citizens from threats internal and external. If a government fails to do that, it ceases to be a government.

I realize there’s a bunch of Revolutionary 1760s Bostonian types that will scream “Give me liberty or give me death” back at me, but on the face of it, it makes no sense to me. Maybe that’s because it’s 2013, I’m a millennial, and we have the Internet now and whatnot. But I actively participate in the workings of my government at the very least by voting. I cannot participate in the workings of ANY company I interact with. (And don’t tell me I can just stop buying stuff from them. I’m not going off the grid any time soon.)

So I’m supposed to trust them with my information more than the government? Am I missing something here, or am I just as naive?

Another is more succinct:

The outrage over potential abuse of the system is actually pretty funny when it comes from a population that tweets every breath it takes and posts the most private facts (with pictures) on Facebook for total strangers to view and comment.  Twitter gives others access to every aspect of our lives as we live it and Facebook lets the whole world be your intimate friend to know your thoughts, actions, and mood.  Every time I order online, some company tracks my data so they can custom tailor my advertising.  Every class I take or research on a subject I am interested in becomes information for someone.  Why get all bent out of shape over the government jumping on the band wagon?  As for abuse, I’ll take the government over Amazon or Google.  Less chance of my information being used for evil purposes, quite frankly.

Matt Steinglass’s contribution on this subject:

The government isn’t spying on us; Google is spying on us, and the government is asking Google for certain results. We need to think coherently about what we find scary here. The problem isn’t so much that we haven’t set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from the government; it’s that we haven’t set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from anyone at all. If we don’t have laws and regulations that create meaningful zones of online privacy from corporations, the attempt to create online privacy from the government will be an absurdity.

How another reader boils it down:

What a strange, pathetic country we live in that private companies, whose sole goal is profit, are more trusted than the government, whose main goal (at least, in this instance) is to prevent the killing of Americans.

Another differs:

You’ve mentioned multiple times something to the effect of “We entrust our data to private companies, so why shouldn’t we entrust it to the government?” I think this line of reasoning is mistaken for two main reasons:

1) Consumers are making an informed decision to let companies like Apple view their location data from their phone. Part of that tradeoff is that Apple’s motivation is to provide them with better products with that data. If people want to make the decision to allow the government access to this information, let them make it with the full knowledge that’s what they’re doing.

2) From a technical standpoint (and I’ll try not to get too technical), data, including the contents of phone calls, can be encrypted from the starting point (a person’s PC) to the end point (a server at Microsoft’s datacenter). Nobody can have access to that data unless they have encryption information from one of the two endpoints. If a terrorist wanted to have secure communication, all they would need to do is to use a service from outside the U.S. That would require the NSA to have physical access to the person’s PC to get the encryption keys, which may not still exist by the time they search the apartment. This could all be done with inexpensive technology that would have been the dream of 1950s Soviet spies. The only “terrorists” that would be caught by this kind of program are the ones who are naive enough to believe that entrusting an American-based company with their sensitive communication doesn’t pose a security threat to their operation.

Overall, this kind of program may scare up a few arrests from idiot would-be terrorists, but it would do very little to disrupt well-planned and well-coordinated attacks like 9/11, and at a cost of a massive secret database that, as other readers have pointed out, is ripe for abuse.

I’m open to arguments for the abolition of PRISM, if my reader’s claims about it are true, and the balance of evidence suggests it does far more harm than good. Heck, I’m open to arguments about getting rid of the CIA altogether. But a general fear of Big Data – when it comes to protection from terrorism as opposed to when it comes to protection of your porn watching habits – is not something that terrifies me. Unless you’re terrified by modernity itself. I don’t like it and would probably have been happier when all information was on paper and tied to a physical object that can be protected by the Fourth Amendment. But this is our world. We want our smartphones; we have to deal with Big Data. If we have Big Data, it’s crazy not to use it for reasonable ends.