As I’m sure you know, the big news this past week was about the technology giants providing information to the National Security Agency. It’s been covered ad nauseam in both the mainstream news and tech focused media, so I won’t recap the details. Instead, I’d like to propose some questions that I hope will get people thinking in a less reactionary manner.
While I understand why many people are angry, I also think most of those now enraged about the encroachments on their privacy are being hypocritical and ignoring their own roles in the matter.
How can we be angry about privacy when we’ve voluntarily given it away for free? Everyone knows that Facebook, Google, Apple, and every other tech company is mining all of our data. I believe Facebook even claims to own everything we upload. These companies have openly stated their rights to our information in their terms of service and we’ve all happily signed away our privacy to them. And yet, not only are we not angry at these firms, we actually love them. Google and Apple consistently rank high on surveys of the most admired companies.
The fact that we not only choose to give away our information, but proactively share it with the world brings up several questions.
1. Why are we okay with giving our information to private companies, who are obviously using it to their benefit, but we bang the drum of revolution when the government accesses it?
2. Since we’re sharing the information publicly, would the surveillance program be more acceptable, if the NSA simply built a crawler to scrub data from the public Web? Is it really a breach of privacy, when we’ve made everything public in the first place?
3. If you’re truly concerned about privacy the way many people are reacting, then why did you sign up for these services in the first place? That was your decision. I’m sure many people will say these services are a necessity, but that’s not true. Nobody forced you to use GMail, and you definitely don’t have to post everything you do to social media. Not Google, nor Facebook, nor Apple, nor the NSA forced you to give up your privacy. You did that on your own.
Another question that must be considered is, what would you trade for security? Some of you will say no amount of freedom should ever be sacrificed in the name of security and use the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” But Ben Franklin didn’t mean what people think he meant. Franklin actually saw the liberty and security interests of Pennsylvanians as aligned.
Ask yourself, do you truly believe that no amount of freedom should ever be compromised for the sake of security? What about gun control? If we approve gun control, aren’t we handing over our 2nd Amendment rights to a government bureaucrat?
And yet, the vast majority of Americans support stricter gun control measures. Is it better to live in a country that suffers through weekly mass shootings, or is it better to live in a country that has curbed the freedom to own guns in the name of safety and security? If you’re in favor of gun control, then don’t you have to be at least a little bit in favor of NSA surveillance?
What if the surveillance program only targeted Muslims? While I’m sure people will deny it, I’ll bet anything most Americans not only wouldn’t care, but would happily support a surveillance program aimed at Muslims. If you think racial profiling is dead, watch this video from ABC and see just how alive it really is. Whether consciously or not, Americans eagerly engage in racial profiling. It’s easy to read this and say, “Oh that’s not me,” but is it? Be honest.
(I want to be very clear that I’m not advocating for the targeting of Muslims. I am only challenging you to think about the question, including your own biases.)
I’m not saying the government is right, and I realize some of the information the NSA is collecting is not publicly available data. But I do think that much of the angry reaction is just anti-government bias fueled by inflammatory rhetoric and massive hypocrisy. What else could explain why it’s okay for Facebook to mine our data but not okay for the NSA? What’s the difference? Isn’t the data better used to detect potential terrorist threats as opposed to better ad targeting?
We all love to hate the government and assume their surveillance is pure evil until somebody bombs us and then we blame them for not stopping the threat before it happened. And how can we be angry about encroachments on our privacy when we’ve voluntarily given it away? Better yet, do we even have the right to be angry?
Think about it. The NSA didn’t end our right to privacy. We gave it away for free.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]