I am a pretty regular listener to Stephanie Miller's radio talk show. Miller herself is quite on point on Edward Snowden and the NSA, but her cohorts on the show, affectionately referred to as "the mooks" often set their everloving hair on fire based on NSA's intelligence gathering activities. We have discussed the essential nature of signals intelligence on this blog before, and we will do so again, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on a rather dumbfounding notion that the Left keeps convincing itself is true: that it is more dangerous for the government to have metadata than for private companies to have it because only the government is empowered to strip one of one's liberty.
Not only is this patently and provably false in today's interconnected world, the reverse is closer to the truth. Let me explain.
In today's world, government's power to strip liberties is far from exclusive.
Few things astound me more than liberals' inability - or in cases, unwillingness - to connect different parts of the world around us. The same liberals who argue that Google having your information and the NSA having your information isn't the same because Google doesn't have the ability to physically harm you will turn right around and and walk picket lines against coal mines owned by private corporations that do physically harm people. And by people, we aren't even talking about just their employees but communities.
Liberals protest fracking because of the possibility of corporations harming people, not the government. Liberals stand up for Americans' right to be able to sue corporations for physical harm they have caused - whether through medical malpractice, unsafe food or water, mistreatment of employees or even mistreatment of prisoners.
That corporations cannot do physical harm to people or rob them of their liberties has always been a bad joke. Health insurance companies, banks, credit card companies, payday lenders all have (or until recently have had) the power to strip an individual of their dignity, freedom and even life with zero consequence. In the information age, we can add another amplified power of harm for private entities: bullying. Online bullying has already claimed lives in the most extreme cases, and in less extreme cases, countless victims and their families have been robbed of simple freedoms to be able to go to school without retribution, to be able to love without fear.
The power of online bullying comes from something we're all too familiar with: information handed over to private corporations. An embarrassing post on Facebook, a mistaken tweet, or an unflattering photo on Instagram can be the beginning of intimidation, harassment, and yes, violence.
Online bullying is the most extreme of examples of private entities, corporations and persons being able to rob individuals of their liberty. Far less extreme but just as pernicious examples abound. Employers checking Facbook and other social network profiles (even demanding Facebook passwords sometimes) can not only impact one's ability to be employed but one's ability to exercise the most cherished of our liberties: freedoms of speech, association and thought.
The distinguishing factor between the power of the government with big data and that of large corporations with the same is not the ability to cause harm. It is due process, which the government owes you; corporations do not.
What about consent?
But but. But. Any harm impending on you from private corporations having your data was still, at some point, obtained with your legal consent, one may argue. You are, therefore, responsible for it. The government, on the other hand, does not have to obtain your consent to collect your metadata.
That's not really true, is it? First, every corporation (credit card companies, phone companies, social networking companies) has data sharing agreements with other corporations they do business with - corporations you may have never even heard of, let alone consented your data be given to. Yet, you agree to a "Terms of Service" that makes this 'consent' a reality - most often without even reading it. Your data is shared at different levels with different companies without your explicit consent to share it with that specific company all the time.
And that's the way it has to be. It wouldn't be practical for every corporation you do business with to come back to you at every turn they need to share your data with a vendor or a subcontractor and seek your consent. Nothing would ever get done.
The case, if you think about it, is much the same with the NSA. First of all, as previously explained on TPV, "your" metadata is not your property. It's the property of the providers, and you cannot control who they share that data with, including the government, just as you could do nothing if they chose to share it with a private subcontractor for the purpose of running cell tower traffic studies.
Second, and more importantly, every citizen grants consent to the laws of the land and lawful actions of the government by simply living in a democracy. Often the argument is made that if you don't like a company's privacy practices, you can choose a competitor or leave the industry, but there's only one government. Again, untrue. First and foremost, most private companies won't delete your data when you stop doing business with them. Second, sometimes there are no good alternatives in the market. Sure, you could get off the grid and live in a cave and not have phone service, but that's probably not considered optimal. And by the way, getting off the grid would also solve your NSA obsession.
There is not only a way to change government in a democracy, if you really don't like it, we're not the only country in the world. One is after all welcome to find a country with a better civil rights and privacy record. Incidentally, we users have no recourse if a private multinational company we have consented our data to decides to share it with a foreign government.
Here comes the irony.
And that brings us to the irony. The liberal instinctive response (and I believe the correct response) to wholesale abuses and privacy violations by the private sector is to... turn to the government. We ask the government to ban fracking; we ask the government to institute anti-bullying laws and apply them to cyber-bullies; we ask the government to ban employers from demanding access to prospective employees' social media accounts. We ask the government to pass laws securing our data in private hands - whether it is financial data in the hands of banks and loan sharks or private data in the hands of Facebook and Google.
We do these things because we know that real harm to our persons, our bodies and our liberties can come from private companies, and we want our government to protect us from that harm. We use our government as the defense against private companies doing us harm. In fact, because legal processes are in place governing the government's use of private data (and even nonpersonal data) that cannot be changed at the stroke of a CEO's pen, data may well be more secure and privacy better protected with it in the hands of the US government than many private companies.
This isn't to say that government abuse of power isn't serious. This isn't to avoid note of the fact that precisely because government is our line of defense against private sector abuses, government abuses themselves need to be taken even more seriously. But that level of abuse has to be proven separately from throwing a tantrum because the government simply has data that private companies also have and isn't yours to begin with (metadata without personally identifiable information or content) that it obtained following the law.
It is not just a logical fallacy to believe that big data in the hands of private corporations is less dangerous than in the hands of the American government (actually private companies have more than metadata that the government doesn't have). It is a lie Snowden-loving Lefties seem to be telling themselves to justify their hypocritical Obama-bashing while they continue to drool over private companies whose business model is big data.
I use social media. I love Google. I know companies depend on big data to provide the services we have come to know, love and need. I just don't turn around and bash the government when it uses data to provide the most essential of services: security.