Digital Privacy: Public versus Private

August 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Internet privacy has been a hot topic in the American media since Edward Snowden released details of an NSA surveillance network which has been secretly grabbing the personal information of millions of Americans.  This massive violation of privacy has created a groundswell of discussion over individual privacy on the internet. Media outlets across the country have dedicated entire segments to analyzing the risks – real, and in some cases exaggerated – which the average internet user takes when they use social networks, e-mail, and other daily routines.

This is an important discussion. In fact, it’s one I’m happy to see the mainstream media taking part in (even if some of the discussion is tainted with unnecessary fear mongering). However, there is an extremely important distinction that needs to be made. One which, on the whole, the mainstream media seems to be ignoring. Specifically, the distinction between private companies and the government.

Much of the discussion over privacy violations has been muddled and confused because this important distinction was never properly made. If there is going to be a fruitful discussion on internet privacy, then such a distinction is necessary.

Public versus Private

State surveillance differs from private data gathering in two important ways. First, the state’s surveillance is involuntary. Presumably, you never “signed up” to have your internet history or your e-mails accessed by the NSA. The state must steal this information. On the other hand, websites like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., never “steal” information. To the contrary, they are given information voluntarily by customers. These companies provide a service which many consumers demand. As a result, customers voluntarily provide them with their personal information.1 Compare this with the state’s means of obtaining information; the use of force. Because the state fully realizes that no sane individual would voluntarily provide them with their private information, the state uses its authority to steal the private information of millions of Americans.

The state can then use its authority to utilize the stolen information for whatever purpose it chooses. This brings us to the second difference: how the information is used. Put simply: the only logically objectionable use of privately gathered personal data occurs when private companies provide (either for free or at a price) the state with its consumers’ information (unless of course, the customer agreed to such a situation!).2 Indeed, in almost every other case, private companies simply sell its customers information to marketers. All self-righteous leftist outrage aside, such a sale is simply the markets attempt at better providing you with services. For example, say Facebook notices that you post frequently about the NFL merchandise and notices that you have a passion for authentic NFL memorabilia. Then is it such a crime that they would then allow NFL memorabilia outlets to advertise on your Facebook homepage? When people object to purely private “surveillance”, this is the sort of thing they are objecting to. If you are not comfortable with that arrangement then you have the ability to delete your Facebook account and join one of the many social networks who don’t sell their users information.

The distinction is important. Of course, if a private company breaks its terms of agreement, the should be the target of signifcant outrage. However, the legal and contractually agreed upon use of private data is harmless if not for the state. In any case, it must be emphasized here that the real culprit is indeed the state and its actors. The NSA is only one arm of a very ugly, powerful beast.

1 There is certainly a large portion of the public who are either too dull or too careless to realize what exactly they have signed up for when they use a service like Facebook. Indeed, one of the reasons this entire discussion is so healthy is because it helps us better understand the implications of what we do in the internet. The argument, however, that being uninformed is the same as being “misled” holds no water. When you sign up for a website and agree to their terms and conditions you give consent to that particular company’s policies. If you find out after the fact that you were being negligent and didn’t understand them (or if the company changes them later on) you still have the freedom to quit using their services and find a competitor.

2 In some cases the fear of private companies like Google and Facebook stems from the fact that these companies have a long history of being complicit with the state. To the extent that they are colluding with federal agencies, private companies should not be trusted. Sadly, this is likely true for most major social media companies. This is hardly grounds for condemning the private sector as “dangerous”. Once again, the only reason these companies are using private data for nefarious ends is because the state compelled them to. It’s easy to argue that they should make a stand, but that’s easier said than done. Besides, most of these companies are not entirely free market creatures in the first place. They have links with some of the most corrupt, corporatist groups on earth. Then there’s ample evidence of what can happen if a particular company attempts to defy the state. It’s not hard to see how state power has quickly poisoned the private tech industry.

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