The Surveillance-Internet Complex

Google and other Internet companies should make it clear to users what data they're collecting.

A secure phone at the NSA Cryptologic Museum (Oliver Hulland).

On Jan. 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation about the dire threat posed by the military-industrial complex. An updated version of his speech would read:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex surveillance-internet complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists the intrusion on our privacy exists, and will persist."

The interests of Internet businesses and companies that collect data to profile individual users are closely aligned with government agencies that engage in surveillance or that would benefit from it.

Curtailing commercial surveillance would threaten the business models of Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and greatly reduce the marketing power of Internet juggernauts such as Amazon. For many applications, the Internet could no longer be free.

For this reason, most Internet companies are staunchly opposed to the kinds of restrictions on their behavior that E.U. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has proposed (and the U.S. has successfully fought). She calls for Web businesses to obtain explicit consent before they collect data used to profile individual users. Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposal is the "right to be forgotten," which would allow users to have data about them deleted if there was no legitimate reason for keeping it.

Of course, the data collected by companies on the Internet, along with metadata provided by the phone companies, is just the information NSA and the FBI says they need to keep our country safe. Those agencies have a vested interest in seeing current privacy policies continue as they are--the very policies that create large profit opportunities for Internet companies.

One of the things that makes commercial surveillance so appealing to government agencies is that companies can do things that are very valuable for the government but that the Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits. This act bars the government from merging databases without a specific reason--exactly the types of things credit reporting agencies such as Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion have been doing for years.

Edward Snowden's revelations have placed Google and other companies in an uncomfortable position. They feel their companies' reputations have been injured by users who say they have violated privacy protections by providing information to the government.

As a result, Google has filed suit against the government to be allowed to inform "its users and the public about requests it receives from government agencies around the world for the production of users' information and/or communications."

Google maintains, "Transparency is a core value at Google." Now, that is really interesting--and a bit disingenuous.

If Google was really committed to transparency, it could start by doing something completely under its control: become transparent in ways that are meaningful to its users. It could give individual users access to the data it keeps about them and analytical tools that would enable users to determine the companies that are targeting them. Google could also provide individual users with an accounting of how much money it makes by selling information about their interests to advertisers: on average, about $3-4 per unique visitor per month. Users would then be in a better position to judge the value associated with their privacy.

Google, Facebook, and others could even give individual users the option of buying their privacy--anonymous search and social networking services for a fee. In that way, users who were unconcerned about their privacy could earn free services by giving up their privacy. Those who wanted to be more discreet could pay the service providers with money, not lost privacy.

Those of us who value our privacy need another Eisenhower--now.