How Is What the NSA Does So Different From What Facebook Does?

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 28 2013 5:13 PM

How Is What the NSA Does So Different From What Facebook Does?

Is the NSA that different from Facebook in its attitudes toward U.S. citizens' privacy?

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Matthew Yglesias is on vacation.

Europe isn’t happy with the U.S. at the moment. The National Security Agency has seen to that. Actually, the anger stretches farther than Europe: Brazil and Mexico have made their displeasure known, and the list of peeved countries will surely grow; as the Guardian reported late last week, the NSA monitored the calls of some 35 world leaders after the U.S. handed over the contacts. Notably, German chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t happy that the U.S. was monitoring her personal phone calls as far back as 2002. From the more citizen-centric perspective, Spain is the latest to weigh in—unhappily—based on allegations that the NSA tracked some 60 million calls in the country in the space of a month.


The cascading revelations have put American statecraft to the test. But there could also be economic fallout. Brazil is not pleased that the U.S. has been spying on its president, Dilma Rousseff, and reportedly responded to the news by pulling the plug on Brazil’s $4 billion purchase of arms from Boeing. Administration officials have been quick to downplay the economic consequences of its surveillance; the Brazilian government can certainly vote with its pocketbook, but ordinary Brazilians will probably still login to Facebook and Google, no matter how annoyed they are that the U.S. has been watching.

Why is that? Basically, we don’t like it when the government—ours or other people’s—collects our data for national-security purposes, but we’re more or less cool with private companies collecting our data for revenue purposes. What’s even more incongruous is that much of the information that the NSA collects about us is from the very same private companies that we’re entrusted with our online selves. Data-sharing between private companies: A-OK. Data-sharing between a private company and the government: creepy.

Sure, we willingly offer up our data when we use Facebook, Google, or any other similar site or service. But the bigger issue might be that we simply don’t know—or choose not to know, by not reading or remembering the terms and conditions—what’s being collected, as if we’re waiting around for the Edward Snowden of Facebook to go rogue and tell us. NPR’s Larry Abramson recently hired MIT Media Lab professor Cesar Hidalgo to use the program he created, Immersion, to mine Abramson’s personal Gmail account. Even without reading the actual contents—simply by parsing the metadata—a startling amount of information could be gathered. “Like a fortune teller, [Hidalgo] could immediately ferret out my closest relationships,” Abramson reported. Then, of course, there’s Facebook. Today, Leo Mirani of Quartz had a piece demonstrating “the value of what the American security establishment reassures us is ‘just metadata’ and revealing Facebook’s baroque privacy settings as the faith-based garments of the emperor’s new clothes.” There’s also Facebook’s facial recognition technology, which means that the company doesn’t even really need you to tag photos—it’s already got you covered.

None of this is new, but all of it has fresh resonance with the ongoing NSA revelations in showing a stark disconnect of anger. If the government collects our data to stay secure, it’s Orwellian. If a private company does it to make money, meh, we keep tagging and liking—and that’s great news for their bottom line. Google has argued that lawsuits against it for improperly scanning the contents of Gmail users’ emails should be dismissed because users know that their emails are being read by the company when they signed up for the email service. The real problem is that Google may be right.

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 22 2014 8:07 AM Why Haven’t the Philadelphia Eagles Ever Won a Super Bowl?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.