What Google and NSA Snoops Have in Common

The world's Internet companies got rich behaving just like our government's intelligence apparatus.

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Even Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg may not know as much about you as NSA chief Keith Alexander. (AP)

We knew the Bush administration played fast and loose with Americans' privacy but it's now been confirmed that President Obama is no less keen on spying on his citizens. According to a court order obtained by the Guardian and published overnight, Verizon Business, a subsidiary of the giant telecoms operator Verizon, has been ordered to supply the National Security Agency with call records of all its customers for three months ending on July 19. It's a good bet that this isn't the first such order, and that other telcos are supplying the same information.

In a broad sense, this is fairly standard stuff: government bodies--and not just intelligence agencies--routinely request access to these records for matters ranging from tax fraud to day-to-day law enforcement. But what's alarming to civil-liberties advocates is that the NSA's hoovering up of information is focused not on suspicious individuals but on every user of Verizon's network: It's pre-emptive data collection, on the off-chance that it might one day be needed.

This is less surprising that it should be. The world's biggest internet companies got rich doing exactly the same thing. Like the security apparatus, they too are eager to gather every last speck of information about you. One group does it to target better ads and build more omniscient products. The other does it in the interests of national security.  

Take Google, for example. A year ago, it "streamlined" privacy policies across its dozens of services into a single document. The point was for Google to consolidate disparate chunks of information about each of its user to get a unified picture of who they were and what were doing online. Signing into Google while browsing--by keeping a Gmail window open, for instance--allows the service to keep track of its users' activities on other sites. Facebook also tracks its users with the little "Like" button scattered across the web. With every new service these firms roll out, they gather more and more information, all of which gives them a richer and more nuanced picture of their users. And there there are the various companies that do nothing except collect and sell personal information. In the era of "big data," government agencies would be an anomaly if they didn't collect everything they could.

For Google and Facebook, the purpose is to "organize the world's information" and "to make the world more open and connected." A little synthesis and you could describe the NSA's mission: "to make the world's information more open (for the NSA) and connected (to properly understand it)."

Google understood that having its users' information sprinkled meant it was missing vital connections. The NSA similarly understands the power of consolidating data. Focus on a few "persons of interest" and you risk missing an obscure connection here or an obvious one there. But match phone records with credit-card information, travel details, emails and more, and you can paint a startlingly accurate portrait of any individual.

Equally important, it is possible to draw broad trends about groups. It's what the the hackers down at Menlo Park like to call your mining your "social graph," except that the NSA has better tools. In its own words, its "systems environment is a haven for computer scientists," with "access to acres of hardware, software years ahead of current commercial technology" and "vast networks able to manipulate and analyze huge volumes of data at mind-boggling speeds." Think Facebook's graph search and multiply that by a googol.

Internet activists are rightly concerned by the consolidation of power in the world's largest internet companies. But they seem lilliputian compared to gigantic volumes of data quietly being accumulated by governments. To call it Orwellian would be a cliche; it is just plain terrifying.

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Leo Mirani is a reporter with Quartz in London.

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