Privacy and Profit – Updated

‘Warheads on foreheads’ is the title of one of the sections in this Washington Post story about a recent, extensive interview with NSA document leaker Edward Snowden.  Per Snowden, there were apparently people who joked that that was what they did…they put warheads on foreheads.

I haven’t written anything about Snowden or the NSA revelations because, well, I haven’t really had anything to say about them.  The stories that I’ve read, such as the early one on the PRISM program, have been a bit fuzzy on technical details, so I’ve found it difficult to make strong judgements.  I do value privacy though, and am concerned how modern technology can be used to violate it, so I welcome the NSA revelations, such as they’ve been so far.

And that’s why I’m a bit concerned when I read these paragraphs in the above mentioned section of the interview story:

Technology, of course, has enabled a great deal of consumer surveillance by private companies, as well. The difference with the NSA’s possession of the data, Snowden said, is that government has the power to take away life or freedom.

At the NSA, he said, “there are people in the office who joke about, ‘We put warheads on foreheads.’ Twitter doesn’t put warheads on foreheads.”

Privacy, as Snowden sees it, is a universal right, applicable to American and foreign surveillance alike.

The concern is the whiplash between the somewhat cheeky indifference he shows towards surveillance by private companies, and the proceeding paragraph wherein Snowden’s adherence to the principal of privacy as a universal right is affirmed.  Surely the lack of an ability to launch a missile doesn’t make the violation of a universal right any less profound.

And violate they do, as this Pando piece on data brokers by Yasha Levine documents.  Practically any sort of data on people is available for a price, sliced and diced to your particular needs.  Most shockingly, a list of rape victims was offered for sale.  But beyond the distaste of that specific list, the scale of the thing ( around a $200 billion industry ) combined with the opacity should be plenty enough to raise concern, even if warheads aren’t involved.

Now, Barton Gellman apparently spoke with Snowden for a full few days, and those conversations got compressed down to a short piece in the Washington Post, so the relative paucity of concern Snowden seems to express may not be quite indicative of his true feelings.  And his focus on government surveillance is understandable as that is where his experience lies.  (Though the fact that he worked for a private company, Booze Allen, when he took the NSA documents that he handed to journalists does indicate that the broad categories of private and government entities might not be that helpful)   But we all should be cognizant, no matter where our focus, that threats to the “universal right” of privacy come from many sources, and we do no service to that right when we minimize and dismiss some of those sources in favor of others.


Evgeny Morozov has written what will apparently be an oped in the Financial Times that nicely pulls away and looks at the broader picture related to privacy and the NSA revelations.  It’s well worth a read, and can be read here.  A few choice paragraphs:

No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data – be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it. Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service.

What eludes Mr Snowden – along with most of his detractors and supporters – is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim.




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