In an open letter to decision makers in Washington, D.C., last week, several superpowers of the Web called for global government surveillance reform. Citing this year’s revelations of the U.S. government’s collection of private citizens’ information, these companies “believe it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information.” Wait a minute. Don’t these firms collect information about citizens all the time? Aren’t efforts for national security just as important as the quest to send Web viewers only the advertisements they want to see?
The companies—among them Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft—are calling for limiting governments’ authority to collect users’ information; increasing oversight and accountability of intelligence agencies; boosting transparency about government demands; respecting the free flow of information; and avoiding conflicts among governments. For their part, the companies will continue to focus on keeping users’ data secure and preventing unauthorized surveillance of their networks.
This is all well and good, but aren’t the government reforms these companies are requesting a bit of the pot calling the kettle black? Yes, it is a fact that most computer, Internet and social media firms have stated privacy policies, but in most cases, users must agree to accept them before accessing the products. Say no, and it’s likely they won’t be moving to the next step. Most of the companies also offer privacy settings. All it takes is a degree in software engineering (or being under the age of 20) to understand how to retain some privacy yet get the most out of a system or app.
However, just a bit of online shopping this month should be enough to make anyone realize that the commercial sector also knows the value of information. Want a special deal or free shipping? All you need to give us is your email address. You shopped for baby clothes? Let us suggest these toys, too. Want to purchase this item? We’ll send you our newsletter, because it includes coupons for a future purchase.
Companies have been collecting information about individuals for a long time … and they’ve been using it not for the sake of security but for the sake of their bottom lines. There’s nothing sinister about this. It’s called using the tools at hand to accomplish the best possible goal. For business, that’s profit; for the government, that’s security.
The bottom line is that many of the reforms these companies are calling for have merit. It is difficult for the average citizen to understand how government agencies can move through cyberspace and gather private information with impunity. But if reform is going to take place, it is going to have to be a grassroots effort that brings it about. Citizens and consumers need to be the ones who cry foul and call for more oversight and accountability not just from government agencies but also from the commercial sector.
How would you like to see the commercial sector change its privacy and information-gathering policies? Let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.