The Bottom Line: Information-Gathering Reform Needed All Around

December 16, 2013
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

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

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As a consumer I can and do make the choice to provide information to a company online that provides a service to me of some kind. The difference between giving Google my phone number or Amazon my Visa Card info is that I CHOSE to do so. I can (and many do) decide to do business with one company vs another online based on which one has the better privacy reputation. Some use Yahoo or email rather than Google in hopes of avoiding online ads for example. The government never asked me if they could collect my data online, and according to the 4th amendment they have no right to data I own and have not chosen to share with them voluntarily without a warrant. The NSA activities are a clear violation of the Constitution to any objective observer.

The financial impact of the NSA activities is also dire. Already estimates are that billions in potential US corporate revenue has been lost as individuals and organizations choose not to do business with American firms based on the perceived security of their data. In a world that's moving rapidly to a cloud environment, US firms will quickly lose ground to international competitors with better safeguards unless there is public and significant change made to the way the NSA operates including I believe - complete elimination of bulk data collection.

The "national security" argument has been abused time and time again as an excuse for government abuse of power throughout human history. A good quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin sums the issue up nicely for me: "Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither"

"I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," said Federal Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush. "Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment."

...I'm just not sure that companies that regularly follow me as I move through cyberspace (stealthily, I might add) have enough credibility to be proposing these reforms. You might remember that many of them didn't reveal their techniques to "help" you find products you were interested in until consumers complained LOUDLY. That's when privacy policies were revised and expanded. Once again, it has to be the consumers (citizens) who continue to raise their voices about the government collecting information we consider private. Unfortunately, an privacy expert I interviewed years ago (before 9/11) was right: Once you step out of your door, you're in the public domain, so don't expect privacy. Apparently, he his insights just didn't go far enough.

Thanks for reading The Bottom Line, and special thanks for taking the time to write!

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