Ex-Government Official: The Private Sector Is Threatening Your Privacy

Are data-mining companies and social-media platforms scarier than the government?

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Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz spent a career advocating more thorough protection of consumer information from inquiring private sector eyes. So perhaps it's no surprise that even in light of the recent shocking revelations about government surveillance of U.S. citizens' phone and email traffic, he thinks companies pose an equal threat to people's privacy.

"The implications of the NSA data breach are going to be greater in the context of protecting consumers' commercial privacy," he said at an event on privacy co-hosted by The Atlantic and National Journal on Thursday. "People are increasingly concerned about their own privacy vis-à-vis commercial entities... Americans are going to be concerned about this breach, and things will move much more quickly into the commercial context."

His argument boiled down to this: Outcry from the media, members of Congress, and everyday citizens may not prompt the government to change its ways, even if there are hearings about the Snowden leaks. On the plus side, though, it might sufficiently spook previously unsuspecting Internet users into demanding more control over their information. That means protection from third parties, like advertising or data mining companies, who use cookies to track what people do on the internet — what they buy, watch, read, and more.

"The sky will not fall down if consumers have a little more choice in how they protect data, particularly when it comes to unseen data collectors who put cookies in your property — your computer. You have no idea how they're using it," he said.

Especially considering his recent four-year stint as the head guy at the FTC, his focus on this issue seems reasonable, but a bigger questions stands: Why does it matter if third parties, either public or private, get their hands on information about who we talk to, what we're emailing about, and what websites we visit? More importantly, are these privacy invasions more pernicious in some tangible, measurable way when they come from the government versus the private sector?

Although Leibowitz acknowledged that consumers get certain benefits from targeted data, including specialized safety alerts and tailored advertising, he only identified one tangible drawback of active data mining: information breaches. "Snowden points out that even in the places we think are most secure, we can have a breach," he said. And according to a recent poll*, nearly 40 percent of Americans have had someone make a fraudulent purchase using their information -- clearly, data security breaches lurk as a threat in both the private and public sectors.

The other concern Leibowitz mentioned was more theoretical: Consumers worry about a loss of control over their information. This theme came up again and again. Even though consumers might gain from third party data mining, if individuals want to keep their information private, they should be able to. Again, a fine and reasonable point, but what actually happens to consumers if their information is readily available to companies? Some argue that companies could theoretically start adjusting prices for different individuals based on past purchasing habits, which certainly might disadvantage consumers. But as the past week proves, a bigger question has already come knocking: what if data-vacuuming companies hand your information over to the government?

As The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen wrote recently, many citizens might not consider this kind of unchecked flow of information to be an overbearing privacy invasion, but it still poses a problem. This represents a radical imbalance of power between citizens and their government, especially because agencies like the NSA are mostly shielded from public accountability.

Legal restrictions ostensibly prevent the government from accessing the content of information it gathers, like the body of an email message or the conversation held during a phone call, without a warrant. But at some point during the rise of the digital age, a more subtle wall collapsed: With only the say so of a secret court, aspects of every day life, from the articles we read to the places we shop to the daily email fodder exchanged in an office, go straight to the government without our knowledge -- in fact, the government has already been collecting this kind of information.

That collapsed boundary is the most important take-away: Private sector data mining and government surveillance have merged to become two heads of the same monster. Even though some of our discomfort about privacy loss may amount to nothing more than emotional prickles caused by feeling watched, the tangible consequences of data mining -- including a break-down of government accountability in the way it tracks and uses data about American citizens -- are as much a problem with business as they are with government.

As Leibowitz said in his interview, "The Commission is the closest you get to the nation's protector of privacy. ...The Do Not Call List is one of the most popular government programs the agency runs." With protection like that, who has anything to fear?

*Disclosure: The Heartland Monitor Poll is conducted by FTI Strategic Communications on behalf of Allstate and distributed by National Journal. Allstate was the sole underwriter of this event.