Big Brother Is Real, and It's Your Fault

The great irony of yesterday's biggest story is just how much outrage was directed against it on social media.

Early on Thursday, The Guardian broke a story that claimed the National Security Agency was collecting millions of Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) customers' calling data on an "ongoing, daily basis." Later in the day, the story expanded when The Washington Post revealed that a joint NSA-FBI program, codenamed PRISM, has been data-mining the servers of nearly every major American online company for information on millions of Americans -- perhaps all Americans -- since 2007. Twitter, which is not included on the Post's list of nine companies, has been flooding with anti-spying commentary since the story broke. The #NSA hashtag trended for hours -- it's still the most popular hashtag a day later.

By the time you first found out about the NSA spying operation, whether it was through The Guardian or the Post or here or anywhere else, you'd already shared more than you know with more than one major data center.

It's quite possible that you found this article while browsing Yahoo!, which tailors its list of featured articles based on what you've read in the past. After you finish reading, you may choose to share it on Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) , or you might tweet it, informing one or the other social network (or both) that you are in some way anti-privacy, which might very well result in sponsored ads pitching privacy software later in the day. You could even post it to the barren wasteland that is Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) Plus, which will subtly alter the priority ranking of Google's search results the next time you go looking for anything related to privacy, security, the NSA, or possibly Mark Zuckerberg, and it's fairly certain to alter the ads you'll see alongside those searches. Twitter is the only online company of that group that doesn't participate in the PRISM program, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better option for sharing your outrage over the intrusion than any other alternative.

Your data does not belong to you anymore. Government leaders didn't collude together to deem it so one day. It's taken decades of conscious decisions by millions of people to create a culture that values access over privacy and that will trade identity for information.

When interstellar exploration ramps up, it'll be corporations that name everything
The great irony of all this outrage is just how much of it was vented on platforms designed to spy on everyone for a profit. What is Facebook, if not a vast database of people, movements, events, and opinions? What is Google, if not a vast database of what everyone's looking for and who they've been talking to? The things people do online are tiny little specks of data in an enormous universe of information. Over time, the Facebooks and Googles of the universe will gather those little data-specks together until a galaxy forms, with big coherent chunks (not unlike stars and planets) made up of specks from your life mashed together with the specks of millions of other people. And then they'll sell it all to advertisers, one chunk at a time.

Any reasonable expectation to privacy was abandoned when people allowed their lives to become specks of data for sale. That sale was authorized when everyone demanded that the Internet structure itself in a way that allowed maximal access at minimal cost. What appears free on one end of the equation is bound to have costs on the other. You can have unlimited access to a universe of information, or you can have privacy, but you can't have both.

Of course, over time, the technologies that enable this transaction improved to the point where those in control of it could look at any given bit of information about any given individual any time they wanted.


Source: Cory Doctorow via Flickr.

Earlier this year, digital security expert Bruce Schneier wrote an article similar to this one for CNN. The article garnered 26,000 Facebook likes and nearly 3,000 comments -- each little speck of data providing Facebook, Google, and CNN with a bit more marketable value in exchange for Schneier's "free" and ultimately futile warning:

The Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we're being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period.

Apple, too, is a part of the PRISM program. It's a relatively recent participant compared to Facebook and Google, which have both been providing data for over five years -- and an unwilling participant, if its flat denial of any knowledge of the program is to be taken at face value. Facebook and Google (the only other companies to speak publicly as of this writing) also flatly denied knowing anything of PRISM, let alone participating in it. It would be nice to give these companies the benefit of the doubt, if security lapses were not so common, and policy changes not typically made to tear down what's left of the wall between your life and their servers, rather than to rebuild it.

But let's give them the benefit of the doubt anyway. Maybe the government really is snooping into the great galaxies of personal information without Apple's knowledge or Google's consent. This is not exactly new. USA Today broke the news of NSA phone-record snooping back in 2006. The similarities between that scoop and The Guardian's were enough for National Journal to put together a "this or that" article to see if readers could tell which quote was from which year. Maybe the same thing will happen in 2020. Maybe the data will come from the chips implanted in your brain or the eyePhone jammed into your cornea, giving the NSA moment-to-moment knowledge of your health and vital signs. Who knows? Whatever improves on the consumer end is bound to be matched with improvements to the data-collection infrastructure on the other side of the equation. The only reason snooping seems more pervasive in 2013's revelations than in 2006's is that the technology behind it keeps improving.

My previous privacy-related articles noted examples of government snooping throughout 2012, including NSA "wiretaps in [AT&T's] switching buildings, through which much domestic data traffic flows, and at its satellite-receiving earth stations." This was to be run through -- surprise, surprise -- the very same data center in Utah at the heart of the present NSA snooping controversy. This was over a year ago. I wasn't the only one writing about it, and I had no exclusive inside scoops. The only reason anyone should be shocked today is if they simply were not paying attention. The fact that the scope of the snooping was broader than many people thought only means that most people underestimated the government's ability to leverage the same sort of technology that Facebook, Google, and the rest use to harvest personal information every day to sell advertising. The processor in the latest iPhone isn't the only thing that's better than it was a year ago.

It doesn't matter whether or not the gatekeepers cooperate with the government. It doesn't matter whether or not it seems outrageous that the government can watch what everyone types in real time. Citizens have never demanded that the United States government stop spying on them by casting their votes and raising their voices. Voters never tried to pull the levers of data-driven power back in their own direction. In other countries, such as Egypt or Libya, where citizen uprisings toppled known spy regimes, they vastly underestimated the ease and the appeal of establishing a new spy regime in its place. Information is power, whether it's in corporate or government hands. The only way to restrain that power is to stop offering up information, and in a world where nearly every transaction or communication is digitally mediated, it's all but impossible to stop.

The downside of a connected society is that it's no longer an anonymous society. If you feel angry that the government might be watching your every move, ask yourself this: Would you give up access to the world just to reclaim your privacy?

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Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (16)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2013, at 1:50 PM, I009459 wrote:

    George Orwell's book '1984' should be re-titled '2084'. He was just 100 years early. I have no doubt that in 2084 his book will mirror the world then.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2013, at 2:12 PM, twolf2919 wrote:

    2084? You're being generous - I guess to maintain the last two digits of the year. I think we'll be there in less than 20 years.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 4:25 AM, ObsidianMTness wrote:

    Great article!!!

    When these stories broke out, I wondered why the reporters, pundits, and agencies with missions to protect privacy did not make an equally seismic commotion about how everything we do on the internet is being tracked by some company for the sake of making a profit? It is ironic that in Europe, governments in countries like Germany and France fought to defended their citizens' privacy by limiting or disallowing corporations from collecting information ubiquitously.

    OK so in the current high tech world that we live in, we have lost any sense of privacy. But does anyone know how I can access the information the government or the corporations are collecting about me? My FICO score is only thing that I could think of.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 6:48 PM, bronxboy1 wrote:

    As anyone with an android phone should be aware, that when you download an app from the Play Store they include in their permissions (open and hidden),the right to your contacts,internet,and phone so that you can download said app. Never into social media.Now I know it didn't matter I wanted some modicum of privacy. I'm going for the Gold! Facebook,

    Linkdin,Twitter,Tumblr, all the others,

    HERE I COME. TAKE IT ALL YOU WANT IT,

    YOU GOT IT. Instagram has PHOTOS.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2013, at 1:08 PM, gbad00 wrote:

    If you are not yet concerned by our already well advanced information state and the uses which the corporate-government axis could make of it, I suggest seeing the following movies: Brazil, The Matrix (the first in the series), and, of course, 1984.

    Now look at how non-judicial tactical killing of civilians, by drones or other means, including, on occasion, U.S. citizens, is becoming normalized. Consider that torture is becoming an acceptable means of interrogation, not just because the U.S. uses it, but also because the good guys use it with satisfying effects in more and more prime time action series (24, The Following).

    Then consider that entire aquifers are threatened by energy companies. Industrial agriculture corporations, notably Monsanto, are laying claim to right to feed the world. Large banks can through "error" leave you homeless. Large industrial food producers routinely poison and sicken us in the pursuit of profit over quality and safety. Pharmaceutical companies promote our toxic overmedication while chasing after one more dollar. And these and other industries are even now running the country by providing at least the U.S. Congress with its members' real income.

    There's more, but that's enough to conclude that

    the largest money interests can soon say:

    "You are our property, like cattle. You are a resource, so we prefer you alive rather than dead. But we know where you are, what you are doing and thinking, who you are talking to, and what and where your resources are. If you resist, we have many subtle and direct means to deal with you. Our control is now infinite and permanent."

    The opportunity to stop this totalitarian evolution is nearing and end. The first thing we can all do is to reduce or stop our use of the output of these industries, and start requiring a position on these issues as a litmus test for candidates for office.

    What else can we do? Comments?

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2013, at 10:23 AM, damilkman wrote:

    To gbad00 I think you are going a little overboard and missed the point of the article. Most of what you rant against has nothing to do with advances in internet technology. Whether we have an advanced state or not has nothing to do whether we decide that torture, unethical business, or totalitarian governement is good or bad. Stalin did just fine building a state absent of freedom and complete control with no computers. He learned how because the Tsartist's had been doing it for hundreds of years. Banks, Railroads, and mining companies were seizing individuals properties in the 19th century before there was a telegraph. Why do you think Teddy Roosevelt created the FDA? Our food has long been poisoned. If you want to rant about society, fine. But it has nothing to do with the ability of government or business to collect data about you.

    This is about information which like the recent advances is a two edge sword. It can empower and free individuals because they can transmit information. But it is a tool that big entities can use to control. Some may rail about big business knowing something about you. Howver for some they find it advatageous as business can anticapate what you are really interested in. A whistle blower can inform billions with a single post.

    There is good and bad that comes with ths new technology. As a society we have to decide what we will accept. As an individual you can protect yourself. You can choose not to use Google, Yahoo, Facebook etc. Use a shell from a mom & pop. Run everything encrpyted. Sign in to somewhere geographically far away. Use aliases and put up false pictures.

    But if your into torture, dropping a rock on someones foot will do just as well as a CRT. :) This is just a tool. And like rocks, nukes, guns, and bibles, this technology can be used for good or bad be it big brother or one twisted individual.

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