Where’s the outrage over private snooping?
There’s been a tremendous amount of hubbub recently surrounding the data collection data mining that the NSA has been discovered to be doing.
For me what’s weird is that so many people are up in arms about what our government knows about us but not, seemingly, about what private companies know about us.
I’m not suggesting that we should be sanguine about the NSA program – it’s outrageous, and it’s outrageous that we didn’t know about it. I’m glad it’s come out into the open and I’m glad it’s spawned an immediate and public debate about the citizen’s rights to privacy. I just wish that debate extended to privacy in general, and not just the right to be anonymous with respect to the government.
What gets to me are the countless articles that make a big deal of Facebook or Google sharing private information directly with the government, while never mentioning that Acxiom buys and sells from Facebook on a daily basis much more specific and potentially damning information about people (most people in this country) than the metadata that the government purports to have.
Of course, we really don’t have any idea what the government has or doesn’t have. Let’s assume they are also an Acxiom customer, for that matter, which stands to reason.
It begs the question, at least to me, of why we distrust the government with our private data but we trust private companies with our private data. I have a few theories, tell me if you agree.
Theory 1: people think about worst case scenarios, not probabilities
When the government is spying on you, worst case you get thrown into jail or Guantanamo Bay for no good reason, left to rot. That’s horrific but not, for the average person, very likely (although, of course, a world where that does become likely is exactly what we want to prevent by having some concept of privacy).
When private companies are spying on you, they don’t have the power to put you in jail. They do increasingly have the power, however, to deny you a job, a student loan, a mortgage, and life insurance. And, depending on who you are, those things are actually pretty likely.
Theory 2: people think private companies are only after our money
Private companies who hold our private data are only profit-seeking, so the worst thing they can do is try to get us to buy something, right? I don’t think so, as I pointed out above. But maybe people think so in general, and that’s why we’re not outraged about how our personal data and profiles are used all the time on the web.
Theory 3: people are more afraid of our rights being taken away than good things not happening to them
As my friend Suresh pointed out to me when I discussed this with him, people hold on to what they have (constitutional rights) and they fear those things being taken away (by the government). They spend less time worrying about what they don’t have (a house) and how they might be prevented from getting it (by having a bad e-score).
So even though private snooping can (and increasingly does) close all sorts of options for peoples’ lives, if they don’t think about them, they don’t notice. It’s hard to know why you get denied a job, especially if you’ve been getting worse and worse credit card terms and conditions over the years. In general it’s hard to notice when things don’t happen.
Theory 4: people think the government protects them from bad things, but who’s going to protect them from the government?
This I totally get, but the fact is the U.S. government isn’t protecting us from data collectors, and has even recently gotten together with Facebook and Google to prevent the European Union from enacting pretty good privacy laws. Let’s not hold our breath for them to understand what’s at stake here.
(Updated) Theory 5: people think they can opt out of private snooping but can’t opt out of being a citizen
Two things. First, can you really opt out? You can clear your cookies and not be on gmail and not go on Facebook and Acxiom will still track you. Believe it.
Second, I’m actually not worried about you (you reader of mathbabe) or myself for that matter. I’m not getting denied a mortgage any time soon. It’s the people who don’t know to protect themselves, don’t know to opt out, that I’m worried about and who will get down-scored and funneled into bad options that I worry about.
5 6: people just haven’t thought about it enough to get pissed
This is the one I’m hoping for.
I’d love to see this conversation expand to include privacy in general. What’s so bad about asking for data about ourselves to be automatically forgotten, say by Verizon, if we’ve paid our bills and 6 months have gone by? What’s so bad about asking for any personal information about us to have a similar time limit? I for one do not wish mistakes my children make when they’re impetuous teenagers to haunt them when they’re trying to start a family.