Taking steps to end, or at the very least to constrain, the federal government’s practice of storing information on the personal communications of Americans is a good thing. There is every reason to respect initiatives that seek to prevent the National Security Agency’s metadata programs from making a mockery of the right to privacy outlined in the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.
But the moves that President Obama announced Friday to impose more judicial oversight on federal authorities who might “listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails” and the steps that may be taken by Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to check and balance the NSA following the submission of proposals on March 28 ought not be seen mistaken for a restoration of privacy rights in America.
What the president and his aides are talking about—in response to revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, congressional objections and public protests – are plans to place some controls on the NSA and perhaps to keep most data in “private hands.”
But what controls will there be on those private hands?
As long as we’re opening a discussion about data mining, might we consider the fact that it’s not just the government that’s paying attention to our communications—and to what they can reveal about our personalities, lifestyles, values, spending habits and political choices.
There’s a reason the NSA has been interested in accessing the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. When you’re mining, you go where the precious resources are, and technology companies have got the gold.
Data is digital gold. Corporations know that. They’re big into data mining.
This data mining, and the commercial and political applications that extend from it, gets far less attention than the machinations of the NSA or other governmental intelligence agencies. Tech publications and savvy writers such as Jaron Lanier recognize these concerns. The Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Senate Commerce Committee have taken some tentative steps to address a few of the worst abuses. But that’s not enough, especially when, as Fordham University’s Alice E. Marwick noted in a smart recent piece for The New York Review of Books,
there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.